Today, the 14th anniversary of the biggest mass slaughter of human life on American soil, is a good time to reflect on mankind, his purpose, and the universe.
Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei is credited with saying that “Mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe.” A great way of putting it — and so true. Without mathematics, we would know virtually nothing about the universe. And if we knew nothing about the universe, we would know very little about ourselves.
Without math, our knowledge of ourselves and the universe would be largely based on mysticism. Without math, nothing would make any sense to a halfway intelligent, rational, 21st century human being.
Let’s start with the universe and work our way down to man. The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it even exists. Why does there need to be a universe? Why not just a wart? Or an orange? Or nothing at all?
The second most incomprehensible thing about the universe is its vastness. The endless trillions of cosmic bodies that inhabit it are so far apart that without math we would know almost nothing about even our closest neighbors.
Finally, the third most incomprehensible thing about the universe is how it came about — and how it is still evolving.
- The nearest star — repeat, nearest — to our solar system is Proxima Centauri — 4.3 light years away. For the record, a light year is 186,000 (miles/second) x 86,400 (seconds in a day) x 365 (days in a year).
By my calculations, that’s more than twenty-five trillion miles, or a hundred billion times further than the distance between the earth and the moon.
Not exactly a good bet for a Sandals vacation, given that a 21st century spaceship would take at least 25,000 years to get there. Or, if we could ramp that up to a futuristic spaceship that could travel at the speed of a million miles per hour, we could cut the time down to about 6,000 years.
- As to our own little solar system — which is just one of trillions of such systems in the universe — it’s still so big that no one will ever reach its outer edge. Although we cannot be certain of the exact distance, we know that it has to be at least three billion miles or so from where we reside.
- Of course, the universe is another thing altogether. The mathematically visible universe is a million million million million miles across. That’s 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles! However, most scientists suspect that it’s really millions of times bigger than this. But let’s not quibble about a billion or so millions and just stipulate that the universe is very big.
- There are 100 to 400 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone, and there are perhaps as many as 150 billion other galaxies in the known universe.
Okay, enough. You get the idea: The universe is humongous, and the spaces between the planets, moons, stars, and galaxies are far too great to be navigated by intelligent life — ever.
So, how does all this play into the fact that you and I exist? Because in order for us to have come into existence, the conditions of the big bang and the subsequent universal expansion — forgetting about earthly evolutionary factors that may or not have played a part in creating us — had to be just so. A helter-skelter universal expansion would not have produced us.
As just one of an endless number of examples, for the universe to exist in its present form, hydrogen has to be converted to helium in a way that converts seven one-thousandths of its mass to energy. Lower that figure by a hair, and the universe would consist of nothing but hydrogen, and we would not exist.
- You are comprised of trillions of atoms, but no one has a clue as to what causes these atoms to come together in just the right way to create you — or why atoms even exist. In fact, if the universe had formed a fraction of a hair differently — say, if gravity were just a fraction stronger or weaker, or if the expansion of the universe had been slightly slower or faster — the stable elements that make up celestial objects (not to mention the human body and brain) might never have developed.
- Even after having gone through all the trouble to make you, the atoms that form you are impertinent. Not only do they have no interest in you, they don’t even know you exist. In fact, when you die, your atoms go elsewhere, so, ultimately, your entire body disappears. Isn’t it strange that the atoms that formed you go on to form other things, but you disappear? Humbling, to say the least.
- By the same token, the atoms that make you are never alive (or so scientists believe), yet you You “die,” but your atoms live on? By secular standards, it makes no sense at all. In fact, it seems impossible.
- Remember the film The Truman Show, starring Jim Carrey? He plays a character named Truman who lives his whole life trapped in a dome and not knowing there is an outside world. But near the end of the film, Truman manages to reach a wall with a door in it. After pondering whether or not to venture out of his capsule, he finally opens the door and steps into the real world.
Could someone mimic Truman in real life and actually escape the universe and discover what’s outside? According to Albert Einstein, the answer is no, because it’s impossible to ever reach the edge of the universe. Einstein believed that space “curves in on itself,” so no matter how far you go in a straight line, you’ll always come back to where you started. Don’t ask.
Some scientists believe that there may have been — and still are — trillions of other big bangs, and the reason we happened to end up in this universe is because the conditions of our big bang made it possible for its thought-devoid atoms to form us.
But the strangest thing of all is that while these atoms keep you intact as a human being, and even though what you do while you’re alive seems to matter a great deal to you, it’s all just an illusion, because you’re just a soon-to-be-gone creation of the atoms that formed you.
That’s right, you’re nothing more than a collection of atoms that will someday desert you, at which time there will be no more you. What a blow to the self-esteem to realize that you are just a temporary gathering of microscopic particles that will soon go on to other things without you and not even bother to say goodbye.
So what does all this tell us? Most of all, that when all is said and done, we actually know very little about the universe or ourselves. We certainly don’t know why we’re here or what our purpose is. Or if we have any purpose at all. How can something that cannot control its own existence have a purpose?
It’s hard to digest, but, say, in a million years or so, no remnants of 9/11 will exist. Ditto with the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Gulf War, the Afghanistan War, the Iraq War, and so on.
So the question is, what is life on planet earth all about? The truth is that no one has a clue. No one knows why we’re here or who made it all happen. Nor does anyone know why there is a universe at all or why it developed in just the right way to make intelligent life possible.
Perhaps astronaut Gene Cernan — the last man to walk on the moon — gave as good an explanation as any as to what otherwise makes absolutely no sense to the human mind:
“What I saw as I looked at the earth from the moon was that it was all too beautiful to have happened by accident. This could not have been the result of two dust particles coming together. I wanted to do grab that crescent Earth, put it in my spacesuit and take it home and show it to people. Looking up at the Earth, I had the sense that I was sitting on God’s front porch.”
Given a complete lack of evidence that makes any sense, until a more logical explanation comes along, Cernan’s view sounds pretty good to me. The best alternative I could possibly come up with is that perhaps we’re all trapped in an eternal dream — but that doesn’t even make sense to me.
Having said all this, God bless the victims of 9/11 and their loved ones. But what it all means, none of us will ever know.