Thinking Beyond the Stars

I sat on the deck for at least three hours last evening, watching dull daylight wash into a dim darkness interrupted ever-so-slightly by a few bright stars, the red planet, and the blinking lights of airplanes. The planet I assumed was Mars was directly in front of my field of vision at the beginning, about mid-way between the distant hills of the horizon and the zenith of the sky directly above me. My assumption about the bright celestial body was correct. The Sky Map app confirmed it an hour or so into my reverie, when I took a short break to retrieve my smart phone. As the sky grew darker, the points of light in the sky multiplied a thousand fold, maybe more. Most of the stars were barely visible, their light so faint that I sometimes questioned whether I saw stars or, instead, just imagined their light. But I knew better. They were there, just so far away that the light I viewed was so old and distant that it had begun its journey toward my eyes before the Earth cooled into a habitable place. I wonder, though, whether they remain where they appear, to my eyes, to be. Might they have dissolved into hollow hulks of spent fuel a thousand Earth-years ago? Might they have exploded in a monstrous release of energy that consumed nearby stars? We don’t know yet because the light from that celestial spectacle might not reach us for millenia.

Those were my thoughts last night as I watched the night sky unfold. I sat in a comfortable metal deck chair, my glass of Merlot on the mesh top of the metal table in front of me, and pondered our place in the universe. All the life forms, collectively, on our planet are so small and insignificant compared to the vastness of the sky and beyond the sky. Vast. That word, even in its suggestion of almost limitless size, is incapable of defining the boundaries of space beyond our atmosphere. We need a word whose utterance conjures a universe of such enormous proportions that it takes our breath away. “Vast” is comparable to our Earth as a speck of dust in our galaxy. We need a word that compares the size of that galaxy to something whose volume is one hundred trillion the one hundred trillionth power larger than that. Perhaps multiplied by an exponent of that number a million times over. These are, to me, incomprehensible numbers. Just as the size of the universe is incomprehensible.

Actually, as I watched the sky last night, it occurred to me (as it has many times before) that the universe is not measurable. Though my mind cannot quite wrap itself around the concept, I think the universe has no limits. It goes on and on and on. It is a never-ending concept. Not an entity, a concept. We understand it only to the extent that we can apply an earthly understanding to an unearthly experience. Maybe it’s an experience of which we are simply a part. Not a concept, but an experience. A transcendent experience of which the planets and stars and the empty space between them are simply physical manifestations.

On the one hand, contemplating the universe and its limits, or the absence thereof, is a fascinating way to spent one’s time, but on the other it emphasizes how utterly unimportant I am. Unlike chaos theory’s butterfly’s effect, my greatest efforts at altering even a microscopic piece of a tiny section of the universe are wasted and impotent. My existence and all it entails will never disrupt the flow of energy in a galaxy a million light years from Earth. I think it’s important for people to understand that, ultimately, they don’t matter. Sure, in a minuscule pocket in a tiny bubble in an infinitesimal spot on the outer fringes of an impossibly small patch of celestial real estate, we matter. But we ought not invest ourselves in thinking we matter beyond that insignificant, microscopic speck of dust.

All that is to say I thought about the universe and me, together, last night. And this morning, as if it mattered, I put my thoughts down. Why do we keep doing this? When we know we’re nothing in an incomprehensively monstrous space, why do we keep trying to pretend we matter? Because we must, I suppose.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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