by Steve Gaines
Several years ago, as an adjunct teacher of television production, I was responsible for a tutorial in the fine points of distance learning while with the University of Nebraska Lincoln. I had two post doctoral students from India who were both physicists. Both these very intelligent students could not understand how I was so interested in their field of study, but still so incapable of understanding its finer points. I wrote the following piece for their benefit. I must admit that it did not help them accept my ignorance in any way. But it did occupy me for a day or two. And its basic sub-text still rings true.
I came to physics rather late in life and well past a time when I might have had any hope of understanding it. It all started, I suppose, one day long ago when I read something written by one of my heroes, Stephen Hawking. It made no difference that I couldn’t understand it. There was just something inherently interesting about it all. The more I tried to “understand” it, the more I lost any hope of enjoying it. So in order to maintain my casual pleasures I decided to forego any chance at real understanding, and just let it all happen.
I learned early to enjoy physics, and a number of other disciplines, from the foggy edge of my casual ignorance, and not with the erudite scholar’s fine tuned intelligence. Physics and cosmology became great and abiding mysteries to me, and remain so to this day. As children do from time to time, in my youth I would lay on my back on a summer night and look into the cosmos. I would allow myself to be carried away on the thoughts it provoked. I would float in that illimitable space. The infinite intangibles that existed in that celestial pool were delicious and I devoured them with great relish. Subsequently I would consider much smaller entities, and the dimensions discovered within and about the theoretical particles of sub-atomic space would dizzy me like the heady convolutions of a monster roller coaster might. It was that confusion and fear that delighted me. I picked happily from the
crumbs of those scientific terms: quarks, and gluons, and muons, and spin, and neutrinos, and strangeness all mixed as they exploded in my mind, as I worked to see them as finite shapes or frameworks. Of course they were far beyond those simple explanations. They were such things that wonders were constructed on…mysteries like Heisenberg’s uncertainties and Einstein’s general relativity and Schrodinger’s cat and what have you.
As a lover of terrestrial maps and their easy answers to real time directions, I was lost in the bright black space of the Big Bang, and in the hopelessness of its contemplation. On my simple geographical maps I could get a handle on north, south, east and west. While studying “cosmological maps” I would become quite lost in what was what and where was where.
Then there was that “big bang.” What was all that about? I could appreciate the concept that there was some infinitely small mass that had suddenly “let go.” But, where all that had happened was lost on me. Was it over there, or over here? Was it then, was it now, or was it someday? Then I would consider Einstein’s notion that time could be bent, and that things could be present both here and there simultaneously. I learned that space was expanding, or it was contracting, that there was dark matter and dark energy. Caught up in the confusion that these possibilities set off in my brain I became even more irrevocably “lost.” I was unable to place myself in this miasma of understanding. I seemed to be playing a game of hide and seek that was without instructions or rules, where one thing could be in two places at the same time. Where was I in this ill-defined space? Where, I wondered was the edge that all things were expanding toward or retracting from? I began to think about the edge that ancient sea men must have had to account for. Was I about to “fall off” some grand precipice? And the more I struggled with these questions the more I seemed to take some sort of comfort in their illusiveness. I was despairing, but I was relishing the despair.
I am not, in any way, overwhelmed by such arcane concepts. I am not afraid of the great darkness. I am not truly alarmed at the thought that I’m so lost. There are no directions, there are all directions in ten million beginnings.
I am like a child thrown into the air by his father, floating for a fraction of time, weightless, expecting somehow to never come back down. I float at that boundless apogee as if the grand vacuum of my palpable unknowing could hold me in that space, forever in the quantum reality of my perverse dream.
In the attempt to come to grips with such mysteries I am like that religious inquirer in his search for a God. I feel as though I were crossing wide empty distances, making the leap from the obvious to the unknowable. I assume the truth of my unfound position will always remain illusive. But nevertheless I am totally at peace in this untouchable faith. The spiritual believer accepts the dogma as a means of staying comfortable. He is fully surrendering to the greater truth and in this “understanding” is comforted. My peace is in the knowing that I can never know no matter how hard I try. I am, in that way, not unlike the enigmatic black hole at the center of whatever galaxy, defined only by my event horizon, only by what can be sensed and never seen. My existence simply explained by that inexpressible void I trail behind me through time and space.
I am myself, quietly, a grand mystery and defined by my simple surrender to the unknowable, filled with the hopeful but inexpressible thoughts of my own eternity. I am as invisible in my own way, as all the dark matter in the universe, whether someday adding up, or not, to some all encompassing solution to the greatest question of all. Who am I?