Monday, November 07, 2005

Spiritual Stuff

As I think about all of these facts and images that attempt to distill the world into an emotionally meaningful experience, the true wonder of it all is that all roads in Nature, when followed downward level after level, seem to lead to the same inescapable realization: Particles and matter are not the ultimate groundwork of Nature. At the most basic level, all known things dissolve into a confluence of reverberating quantum fields, whose interplay in spacetime give us the substance of a stone, the color of a sunset or the fragrance of a rose. Even spacetime may ultimately resolve itself into its own quantum essence as a spider web of interacting particles made up from pure space. There is, perhaps, a germ of truth to the saying that " the universe has more of the character of a thought than a machine". The knots in the fields we call matter are just the tracers of a more fundamental reality, mere flotsam and jetsam on the ocean of the universe. The deep roots that elementary particles have may reach down into the bedrock of spacetime whose geometry ultimately controls their properties and how they are destined to interact with one another. Like an oak or a maple tree, we measure and perceive only their broad canopies. Their roots remain forever hidden.

And so, after all of this, I am left with only one core experience that serves as a beacon for me. On a dark winter's night in January I stood outside and looked at the vast emptinesses between the stars. I saw the dust clouds and nebulae, the faint pinpoints of warmth set against the unimaginable cold of the universe. And in my mind's eye, I saw something else too. I saw a vast landscape of quantum fields busily curving spacetime and steering the motions of matter. I saw beneath this, a plenum of activity just below perceptibility, where ghost-like quanta knit the Void into a dynamic vacuum, and suspend it like a spider's web, above the great abyss of Nothingness. I felt the hardness of my body and the ground beneath my feet dissolve away into the invisible gyrations of spacetime curvature, in a seamless way that reunited my body with the Void itself. My mass was taken up by the energy of massless fields that themselves dissolved into the comings and goings of graviton networks that spun their web works at the foundation of space and time.

What any of these things meant, I had not the slightest clue because the experience was purely non-verbal. But I had the sense that all was well. That no matter what the explanation of what I was witnessing might be, we would come to it in due time if that was our good fortune and destiny. For now, I was content to be living in the most likely of all possible worlds, enchanted by what I knew, but humbled by what I could not.

Sten Odenwald (Astronomer)

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