My grandson loaned me his copy of Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson. I’m struggling to understand it — not because the words don’t make any sense or because of complicated calculations but because of the vastness of time and space and possibility it describes.
In fact, the book is simply and beautifully written, and I understand the words as I’m reading them . . . I just can’t grasp the immensity. It’s the same incomprehension I had as a five-year-old kid when my Dad and I talked about infinity. I insisted space had to have an edge or an end, and my Dad asked me what would come after that? Or what number comes after the highest number in the world? What came before the universe?
And yet, this moves me: the universe had a beginning. We are made of the same substance as it: “Every one of our body’s atoms is traceable to the Big Bang and to the thermonuclear furnaces within high-mass stars that exploded more than five billion years ago…stardust brought to life…” We are part of everything, and everything is part of us. It is so awesome and immense that it literally brings tears to my eyes.
It is miraculous that we are here, a fortuitous series of events, a “Goldilocks moment,” with not too much and not too little. One could regard it all as accidental . . . Yet there are universal physical laws. Ponder that for a moment. In the context of infinity, isn’t one possibility that there could have been no universal laws? And conversely that the Goldilocks moment was not completely serendipitous?
The thought occurs to me that in the context of such incomprehensible vastness and awesomeness, it is as crazy to say there is no G-d as some think it is to say there is. Are we an accidental occurrence, an infinitely small speck of chemical dust in time and space so vast it’s impossible to comprehend? Is our joy and suffering utterly meaningless? Or was there a reason for the series of events and reactions that brought us into being?
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Speak if you have understanding. Do you know who fixed its dimensions Or who measured it with a line? Onto what were its bases sunk? Who set its cornerstone? When the morning stars sang together And all the divine beings shouted for joy? Who closed the sea behind doors When it gushed forth out of the womb, When I clothed it in clouds, Swaddled it in dense clouds, When I made breakers My limit for it, And set up its bar and doors, And said, “You may come so far and no farther; Here your surging waves will stop”? Have you ever commanded the day to break, Assigned the dawn its place . . . “ (Job 38:4-12)
As I read this little book about astrophysics and contemplate these things, it is impossible not to be humbled. It is impossible not to appreciate the contemplations of our ancestors on the planet, those who produced great bodies of spiritual teachings. These teachings are stories told to remind us of the miraculousness of our being, to tell us life has meaning. It is an audacious claim. This is the story I choose to live within during the infinitely tiny part of a second I have in incomprehensible vastness.
“This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live…” (Deut. 30:19)