Physicist Alan Lightman on Beginnings, Endings, and What Makes Life Worth Living – Brain Pickings

by Jeremy

“What exists, exists so that it can be lost and become precious,” Lisel Mueller, who lived to nearly 100, wrote in her gorgeous poem “Immortality” a century and a half after a young artist pointed the world’s largest telescope at the cosmos to capture the first surviving photograph of the Moon and the first-ever photograph of a star: Vega — an emissary of spacetime, reaching its rays across twenty-five lightyears to imprint the photographic plate with an image of the star as it had been twenty-five years earlier, immortalizing a moment already long gone.

Probable Impossibilities: Physicist Alan Lightman on Beginnings, Endings, and What Makes Life Worth Living

And yet in a cosmological sense, what exists is precious not because it will one day be lost but because it has overcome the staggering odds of never having existed at all: Within the fraction of matter in the universe that is not dark matter, a fraction of atoms cohered into the elements necessary to form the complex structures needed for life, of which a tiny portion coalesced into the seething cauldron of complexity we call consciousness — the small, improbable fraction of a fraction with which we have the perishable privilege of contemplating the universe in our poetry and our physics.

In Probable Impossibilities: Musings on Beginnings and Endings (public library), the poetic physicist Alan Lightman sieves four centuries of scientific breakthroughs, from Kepler’s revolutionary laws of planetary motion to the thousands of habitable exoplanets discovered by NASA’s Kepler mission, to estimate that even with habitable planets orbiting one-tenth of all-stars, the faction of living matter in the universe is about one-billionth of one-billionth: If all the point in the universe were the Gobi desert, life would be but a single grain of sand.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince

Along the way, Lightman draws delicate lines of figuring from Hindu cosmology to quantum gravity, from Pascal to inflation theory, from Lucretius to Henrietta Leavitt and Edwin Hubble — lines contouring the most fundamental questions that have always animated humanity. These questions are themselves the answer to what it means to be human.

Building on his lifelong passion for harmonizing our touching human partialities with the fundamental reality of an impartial universe — our hunger for absolutes in a relative world, our yearning for permanence in a universe of constant change — he writes:

As we have struggled through the ages to fathom this strange and wondrous cosmos in which we find ourselves, few ideas have been richer than the concept of nothingness. For to understand anything, as Aristotle argued, we must understand what it is not. To understand matter, said the ancient Greeks, we must understand the “void,” or the absence of matter.

Because we are self-referential creatures — the consequence of being creatures with selves, itself the consequence of consciousness and the ceaseless electrical storm of neural firings that gives rise to our sense of self — no void troubles us more than that of our mortality: the notion of our absence from the scene of life. It is difficult enough to grasp how some things could have arisen from nothingness — how the universe can exist at all. It savages the mind and its animating selfhood to consider that everything — including the subset constituting the particular something of us — could dissolve to nothingness.

Related Posts

Leave a Comment