06 Feb You are made of stuff that is as old as the planet, one third as old as the universe [(FRANK CLOSE) Daniel Klein]
“You are made of stuff that is as old as the planet, one third as old as the universe, though this is the first time that those atoms have been gathered together such that they think that they are you.”
FRANK CLOSE, BRITISH PARTICLE PHYSICIST (1945– ),
I read this line recently in Frank Close’s Particle Physics: A Very Short Introduction, and it bopped me in the head with something that felt very much like spiritual wonder.
That is paradoxical, because Close’s statement is clearly as materialist as you can get. For him, as for most physicists, material (fundamentally atoms and their inner structures) is all there is, nothing more and nothing less. No realm of the immaterial exists in such a worldview, no gods or souls or independent minds that are not reducible to atomic activity. And don’t even start thinking about free will—everything we do is determined by atoms bouncing around this way and that.
So what is it that bopped me on the spiritual side of my head?
It is the permanence of everything in the universe. All the basic stuff has been here since the Big Bang and will remain here for as long as there is Time. What we think of as the development of the universe or, on a far smaller scale, the history and evolution of human beings on this particular planet, is only the endless assembling and reassembling of this same stuff in different combinations at different points in time. This strikes what I may mistakenly think of as my mind with wonder.
I take some kind of sublime comfort in being part of this permanence. Something primal in me rejoices in this connection to Eternity. I realize, of course, that when my particular combination of atoms dismantles (some call it “dying”), my disassembled atoms will have no consciousness of ever having been me.
Nonetheless, the fact that the far-flung atoms that were once combined as “me” will remain out there eternally provides me with some contentment. Being a member in good standing of the community of atoms may be this materialist’s way of getting inside the Eastern spiritual idea of “being one with everything.” Okay, I do have to admit that this idea of endlessly combining and recombining atoms also gives me the infantile hope that someday those high-flying atoms will gather together as me once more—you know, just for laughs. After all, there is an awful lot of Time out there in Eternity for this particular atomic combo to make an encore. In fact, maybe those atoms have already combined as me at some other time, perhaps in some other galaxy. I try not to get too carried away with this scenario, though; it can feel more like playing a video game in my head than a spiritual experience. But while I am being fanciful, I will allow myself one more whimsical speculation.
Frank Close and other theoretical physicists talk about the possibility of the existence of dimensions other than the three spatial dimensions and one temporal dimension that we know. The reason they entertain this possibility is that there are newly discovered phenomena that they otherwise cannot account for. Recently, physicists at Fermilab detected a puzzling characteristic of subatomic particles called neutrinos—particles that have no charge and barely any mass. Under certain conditions, a high number of these particles transform into charged electron neutrinos. Thus far, no one has been able to come up with a reasonable explanation for what they call this “low-energy excess.” So now these scientists are speculating about a new kind of neutrino that, as they say, “may be bouncing in and out of extra dimensions.”
To be honest, I cannot begin to grasp what these physicists at Fermilab do in there, let alone what is puzzling them, and I certainly cannot imagine what an “extra dimension” would be. But I do marvel at the fact that they think such dimensions might exist and that their reason for thinking so is that otherwise they cannot make head or tail out of these newly discovered particles. Well, who knows what might be going on in that extra dimension? Maybe—here’s where I take my whimsical leap—maybe out there in an extra dimension they just might come across a Divine Being.
A stunning characteristic of some of these newly discovered neutrinos is that they move faster than the speed of light.
The gag turns on Albert Einstein’s conception that if something travels faster than light, it travels backward in time.
Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life, They Change It