Tag Archive | universe

The Chinese fortune cookie promised me….


I recently opened a Chinese fortune cookie and read: “You will succeed someday.”

Everyone at the table chuckled.

“After all, she’s almost 75 years old. If she hasn’t made it by now…”


“Well, that’s a nebulous promise, isn’t it? When? And at what?”

I kind of liked the message myself. After all, how many Chinese fortune cookies today contain more than vague platitudes?

Besides, there are more and more of us who keep trying to succeed at a very advanced age. What about the 105 year old woman who recently threw out the first pitch at a Marlins baseball game? What about Harry Bernstein, the fellow I mentioned in a recent post who wrote and published four really good books after the age of 96? Or composer Elliott Carter who was still composing and conducting until his death at the age of 103?

Before I go on, I guess I should try to define success. For a writer, it seems obvious that it has to mean at least some positive criticism, some significant impact on some one else who has actually read the book(s). In other words, it is made up at least partly by being known. By fame.

At least in its aspect as fame, success today has become more and more desirable. Ironically, it has also become more and more common. I mean Wikipedia alone must contain hundreds of thousands of entries. People kill for it and die for it. Most often, they reveal all for it. To be famous today is to be one of a mob.

And then, when you consider the universe Neil de Grasse Tyson has been talking about, the Cosmos seen only vaguely by science, and almost not at all by the rest of us, well, does it matter at all?

Still, the Chinese fortune cookie promised me success. And that’s kind of cool.



The insignificance of us

How utterly strange, tentative and untethered our lives are. There are other words to describe our  situation—many, many of them—but I won’t try to come up with them here.

Physicist and novelist Alan Lightman looks at “Our Place in the Universe” in a recent article in Harper’s magazine and tries to describe how small we are in a universe whose size is unimaginable—and growing. “Simply put, the cosmos has gotten larger and larger. At each new level of distance and scale, we have had to contend with a different conception of the world that we live in.”

How large? The most distant galaxy we know about, says the author, is approximately  100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles from Earth. The average distance between galaxies is about 2 million light years. (Some of us may remember learning that a light year is the distance light travels in 6 trillion miles.) Oh, sure!

Farthest ever view of the universe from the Hubble telescope, containing thousands of galaxies. 13.2 billion years ago. NASA.

All of these are unimaginable numbers. They keep growing as astronomers are able to peer deeper and deeper into space. “A question naturally arises,” writes Lightman. “Could the physical universe be unending in size? That is, as we build bigger and bigger telescopes sensitive to fainter and fainter light, will we continue to see objects farther and farther away—like the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Yongle, who surveyed his new palace in the Forbidden City and walked from room to room to room, never reaching the end?”

Even more breath-taking, keep in mind that that distant galaxy is not only “farther and farther away” in space, it’s farther away in time. We’re looking into the past. We’re seeing the edge of the known universe as it was almost 14 billion years ago.

As Lightman points out, we can’t really understand any of this. Oh, there are people who understand it intellectually, “but our emotional reality is still limited by what we can touch with our bodies in the time span of our lives.”

The author calls attention to another bunch of figures that derive from the estimates scientists have made about the possible presence of life in other parts of the universe. They show that the fraction of stuff in the visible universe that is alive is something like one millionth of one billionth of one percent. “If some cosmic intelligence created the universe, life would seem to have been only an afterthought.”

So much for the significant human!

In the course of his article, Lightman mentions the philosopher, George Berkeley who argued that the whole cosmos is a creation of our minds and that there is no reality outside our thoughts. As a physicist, says Lightman, he “can’t accept that belief.” Largely because of science, most of us would agree with him.

But science has also concluded that the typical table is not really solid, no matter how it feels when you thump it with your fist. It’s made up of whirling electrons and other molecular whatsits. Reality is not what it seems. Something is there but it’s not exactly what we experience. It’s at least partly a construction of our minds which, by the way, would seem to apply to our incredible intellectual construct of the cosmos too.

Lightman’s conclusions are awesome, disorienting, frightening — all of that and more. But they’re far from the last word. Our relationship to reality is, I think, much more complicated than we know. We may not be George Berkeley idealists, but I’m not sure that it’s any more accurate to adhere to the materialism of science.