What do I know!

March 16th, 2016

What do I know! Yes, an exclamation point; not a question mark. I am only scratching the surface of knowledge, and the scratches hardly leave a mark.

Recently I shared the following quote with alums and other friends whom I was visiting in Palo Alto, California. I found it so staggering that I have hung on to it for weeks. The quote is from the news story about the detection of gravitational waves, an empirical observation that confirms a key aspect of Albert Einstein's theoretical work. The waves were discovered because an astronomical event occurred that was so enormous (the collision of two black holes) that it literally bent the space-time continuum back and forth. Here's the quote:

“In that moment, they released 50 times the energy of all the stars in the universe put together. That event ‘created a violent storm in the fabric of space and time, a storm in which the shape of space was bent this way and then that way,’ said Caltech theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, a co-founder of the LIGO project.”

Let that soak in for a moment. Fifty times the total energy of all the stars in the universe. And, remember, as the late physicist Carl Sagan used to say on his PBS program, "Cosmos," there are billions and billions of stars in every one of the billions and billions of galaxies in the universe.

If that calculation isn't a cure for the hubris of Homo sapiens, I don't know what will work!

I just can't fathom it. The scale is beyond the capacity of my imagination. If some theoretical physicists are right, we inhabit a minuscule particle of only one of many universes, every one of which may be just as huge, as complex, and as mind-blowing as this one. Whatever that means!

Not only is the cosmic reality, which astrophysicists encounter and try to describe inconceivable, our own bodies are foreign countries to us. Of this I am reminded by a poem in Jane Hirshfield's "The Beauty" (New York: Knopf, 2015).

The poem is titled, "My Proteins," and I shall quote a portion of it:

"Ninety percent of my cells, they have discovered,
are not my own person,
they are other beings inside me.

"As ninety-six percent of my life is not my life.

"Yet I, they say, am they —
my bacteria and yeasts,
my father and mother,
grandparents, lovers,
my drivers talking on cell phones,
my subways and bridges,
my thieves, my police
who chase my self night and day.

"My proteins, apparently also me,
fold the shirts.

"I find in this crowded metropolis
a quiet corner,
where I build of not-me Lego blocks
a bench,
pigeons, a sandwich
of rye bread, mustard, and cheese.

"It is me and is not,
the hunger
that makes the sandwich good.

"It is not me then is,
the sandwich —
a mystery neither of us
can fold, unfold, or consume."

Each of us is the dwelling place of a whole galaxy of lives that exist in symbiotic relationship with us, depending on us, us depending on them, related so intimately that even to describe the situation as us and them is itself false. We are habitats for non-humanity. They are at our mercy.

Emerging from the shower, I wonder what microscopic empires I have washed down the drain. Eating my morning yogurt, I imagine the intrepid explorers who have launched themselves on a journey through my alimentary canal.

They are at our mercy, and we at theirs. I shudder to think that, like the biblical demoniac who met Jesus, if someone asks me who I am, to be strictly factual, I must answer in the first person plural. This teaming metropolis that I am is scarcely conscious of what makes up me.

So, I think I know something? What do I know!

If I may, I would like to call into question those dueling expressions of arrogance: the one claims to know all about God when we cannot even begin to conceive of the most mundane physical realities, and the other pontificates with certainty that God does not exist simply because we have figured out a few facts about how the world appears to work.

These are relevant thoughts, I think, as we make our way through Lent, toward Passion Week and Easter. We don't know nothing, but we do know next to it.

This piece originally appeared on the blog Thinking Out Loud. Republished with permission.

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