Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Special Place - Supplement

by Conroy

One of my favorite writers, Gregg Easterbrook, included a discussion of the size and composition of the universe in his most recent Tuesday Morning Quaterback column. It's under the "A Cosmic Thought" header at the end of the column. I'm highlighting it here because Easterbrook provides (an unintentionally timely) different take on how we may view the vastness and age of the universe, one that may give readers an interesting counterpoint.

I quote:
"To us, the universe seems immensely old; compared to itself, the cosmos glistens with the dew of morning. The present universe might exist hundreds of billions of years, if not forever. Creation contains at least 100 billion galaxies and far more stars than there are grains of sand. Don't let this make you feel small. Quite the contrary; it should make you feel important. Life is what grants the immensity of the universe meaning. Who can say what the purpose of the cosmic enterprise might be?"

I agree that merely being able to ponder the fact of existence and the reality of the universe speaks to the remarkable intelligence and curiosity of mankind. As Easterbrook eloquently notes, we cannot know the "purpose of the cosmic enterprise". However, is it too much to admit our apparent minuteness in the scheme of existence, and does that have to be a source of disappointment?


  1. Here is Richard Feynman providing a different perspective on the "size" of the universe: "A poet once said, 'The whole universe is in a glass of wine.' We will probably never know in what sense he meant it, for poets do not write to be understood. But it is true that if we look at a glass of wine closely enough we see the entire universe. There are the things of physics: the twisting liquid which evaporates depending on the wind and weather, the reflection in the glass; and our imagination adds atoms. The glass is a distillation of the earth's rocks, and in its composition we see the secrets of the universe's age, and the evolution of stars. What strange array of chemicals are in the wine? How did they come to be? There are the ferments, the enzymes, the substrates, and the products. There in wine is found the great generalization; all life is fermentation. Nobody can discover the chemistry of wine without discovering, as did Louis Pasteur, the cause of much disease. How vivid is the claret, pressing its existence into the consciousness that watches it! If our small minds, for some convenience, divide this glass of wine, this universe, into parts -- physics, biology, geology, astronomy, psychology, and so on -- remember that nature does not know it! So let us put it all back together, not forgetting ultimately what it is for. Let it give us one more final pleasure; drink it and forget it all!"

  2. Our ability to ponder the existence of the universe speaks not only to the remarkable intelligence and curiosity of mankind, but also to the strange nature of the universe itself, where we find "atoms with consciousness ... matter with curiosity ... wonder[ing] at wondering ... I, a universe of atoms, an atom in the universe." R. Feynman.