Friday, August 6, 2010

"One Feels as if One is Dissolved and Merged into Nature"

During the commute back from work today, I listened through my collection of Symphony of Science songs, including some of the remixes (which are a little hit-and-miss, admittedly, but some of them are very good). I'm an enormous fan of the project. Basically, it's sort of like Carl Sagan's Cosmos meets Auto-Tune the News, with famous scientists (Carl Sagan, obviously, Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michio Kaku, Richard Dawkins, Richard Feynman, Jane Goodall, and Bill Nye, among others) saying things about science, auto-tuned and set to music. And it always gets to me -- in a similar way to how Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot speech always gets to me. Scientific understanding has, for as long as I can remember, always been a really significant component of my worldview. Not necessarily all the little details, I'm not a science major so I don't know all of those, but just the way scientific understanding almost removes a set of blinders for me and lets me into the slightest shallows of a cosmic ocean (thanks, Carl) -- enough to know a little, tiny bit, but more importantly enough to see the immensity before me and give me a sense of how little I, or really, any of us really know about this world in which we live. I'll try to keep this short. I'm just going to tell a quick little story from this summer that I hope gets the feeling across a little bit.

A few weeks ago, I spent a day watching through the aforementioned television series: Carl Sagan's Cosmos (thanks to a friend on Facebook, I discovered that all of the episodes are up on Hulu for free, so go watch). It was a marathon session, so it was me and a few other people (for about the first half, I watched the rest on my own once they left) for thirteen hours, listening to Carl Sagan talk to me about what felt like everything: the Library of Alexandria, evolutionary development, supernovae, Kepler and Brahe, wormholes. I've seen it before, a few years ago, but I've developed a lot emotionally and intellectually over the last few years, so it was almost like a new experience for me again.

After the last little bit of "Who Speaks for Earth?", the last episode, I froze in stunned silence for a few minutes. I do this every so often when I see or read something that grabs me and rips me out of the world for a little bit, a sensation probably not unlike what the Square felt when he was pulled out of Flatland for the first time and shown the third dimension -- I've felt this before after seeing V for Vendetta  the fifth time, after finishing Gravity's Rainbow and American Pastoral, and other similar instances. After finishing, I felt an urge to rush outside (note that this was about 2 in the morning), so outside I went, and I collapsed onto the grass, facing upward, eyes fixed, staring at the blackness vast above me. For some reason the streetlight was out, so I could see the stars almost perfectly. There they shone, little pinpoints of light in the deep darkness sprawled above. The light from the stars is a phenomenal thing. All of the stars we see in the night sky are many, many millions of light-years away from us, and while a light-year is technically a unit of measurement, we as primates who evolved in Sub-Saharan Africa, dealing with objects of medium size travelling at medium velocities (thanks to Richard Dawkins for that line), don't really comprehend how enormous that distance really is. It may seem obvious, but it represents the distance that a ray of light travels moving constantly for a year. That light moves at a speed of 3.0x10^8 meters per second. That's over ten million times the speed of a car on the freeway (65 mph). The light we see here on Earth from the stars, depending on which particular star we're talking about, ranges from old to ancient. The nearest stars we see are between 5 and 12 light-years away, meaning that the light we see today was emitted by a churning of hydrogen and helium atoms in atomic fission the scale of which is almost impossible to conceptually graph, before I started high school or before the turn of the millennium. The furthest star we can see without a telescope, Mu Cephei, emitted the light we see today near the beginning of agricultural human civilization. The stars at the center of our galaxy emitted the light we see before humans as we know them today, biologically, not counting any of our advances in civilization or society, existed. The nearest galaxy we can see, Andromeda, is 2.5 million lightyears away -- shooting forth beams of light that were sent before some of our immediate ancestors existed. From the perspective of Blake's Evening Star, the temporal difference between him and me is almost negligible.

I then felt the grass under me, brushing against the skin of my arms, which drew my attention away from the Cosmos above and brought me to my more immediate surroundings. Somehow, when I ran my fingers through it, it almost felt papery to the touch. It doesn't really strike us all that often how truly phenomenal the little things that surround us, that we ignore most of the time, really are. Those blades of grass possess survival structures and distribution networks that allow it to pull water enough to survive from the Earth and to draw energy from the Sun and turn that light, through a process rivaling the complexity of some of our greatest engineering feats, into sugars that nourish it. Chemically, those blades generate a mélangée of hormones that allow it to grow, to propagate. On a larger scale, those blades exist in a delicate and precise ecosystem involving thousands of different plants and animals; almost like a precisely choreographed ballet where even one mistake -- one component vanishing from the system -- spells the death of all. Those blades are the engineering product of millions of years of slow tinkering by a small, gradual, consequential process that can't even realize what precisely it's doing or see the world beyond how it is at the present moment, and that each and every component of that blade has been carefully and brutally tested by the sands of time enveloping around it and its ancestors from almost every continent on Earth. I thought of myself. How my day-to-day life is a carefully balanced dance of hormones and physical processes. How I owe my existence to a string of four different nucleotides, labeled arbitrarily A, T, G, and C, repeated over and over in different combinations and paired three billion times, and how an army of enzymes replicate and duplicate that string of letters faithfully and consistently every single day with an efficiency far surpassing any machine we're capable of building and a success rate that's nearly perfect. I thought of how all of the atoms in my body heavier than iron -- number 26 on the periodic table -- are the remnants of long-dead stars, thrown out by explosions thousands, if not millions of times, stronger than the strongest nuclear weapons we've developed, or how the things I see, and everything I feel, and everything I am, how my consciousness is the byproduct of a hundred billion neurons and a quadrillion connections between them firing electrical pulses back and forth engine-like because of a charge differential caused by sodium and potassium across a membrane border. And the physics -- how everything around me is built of particles that I can't see individually without the strongest of electron microscopes, and how even those things are 99.9999999999999% empty space and built of even smaller particles, which means that I, effectively nothing, interact and feel those blades of grass below me that are effectively nothing, and that the whole of my experience and the whole of my reality is derived from vague approximations of atomic density and distribution and through minute calculation of the frequencies of waves ranging from a few meters long to just a few nanometers long: how everything that makes up who I am resolves in a vanishingly small fraction of a percent. The sensation is difficult to describe accurately. For any of you at Yale that saw Arcadia at the end of last semester, it was very similar to the feeling at the very end of the show. It was as if my senses started bleeding into one another, synesthesia-like, as if my thoughts were slowly crushing me into dust and dissolving into nature. But it still felt perfectly material. It's unfortunate how difficult it is to talk about heightened states of awareness and awe without religious language, but none of those words really describe what exactly I felt out on the grass in the early hours of the morning. It wasn't connected to anything out-of-body, or supernatural, or mystical, or revelatory; it was an extension of understanding I already had.

This'll probably become a recurring toast for me starting in the fall. I think that Neil deGrasse Tyson had it exactly right when he said that "When you're scientifically literate, the world looks very different to you... and that understanding empowers you". I spend a lot of time talking about ethics and philosophy with my friends, and even if we can't directly derive our moralities from scientific reasoning, the lens with which we see the world informed by science is very different. Carl Sagan, as he usually does, had this right. The ethical issues into which we've been careening for the last century and will be speeding headlong into as we continue to progress have almost everything to do with the technologies that natural discovery enable, albeit indirectly. It's at best irresponsible to talk about these things without a firm grasp of the science underlying them and without understanding how we can search the vastness around us, but at worst, "this is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces." Unfortunately for all of us, that explosion is almost certainly literal.

So, to Knowledge, that minuscule point of light we have in an infinite chasm of darkness; to the memory of Carl Sagan and all that he's done for all of us; to Science and what it lets us accomplish; and to the hope that we take seriously that understanding before we destroy ourselves in our ignorance.


Leah said...

[Insert atheistic version of amen]!

Marley Fitz said...

Perfect read as I head off to bed. I'm eternally grateful to Carl Sagan and all that he left us.

Matt said...

Absolutely beautiful. I'll think of this whenever someone claims science takes the mystery and wonder out of life. Thank you for sharing this.