If you’ve been following this blog you may know that I’ve been going through some rough times, lately, with my mother being ill and eventually passing this spring. For a while now, going to sleep has been difficult for me. Instead, I lie weary, but awake, trying to understand what’s happening. How life works. After nights and nights of tossing and turning, I eventually came up with playing some relaxing music to guide me into never-never land. Thankfully, some good Lazy Cat Jazz does the trick for me.
Around the same time I started watching documentaries on YouTube about quantum mechanics, the universe, and how everything came to be. And lately, some of the concepts are sticking in my head instead of flushing right out with the realization of how huge and strange everything is. How unimaginably large the universe is on the one hand. And on the other, how inconceivably tiny the parts that make up everything.
Grasping for straws
We can come up with analogies to help us understand the nature of matter, space, time–and, well, nature itself. But all of these explanatory models must fall short because the very fact that we are inside the system hinders us from seeing the whole picture. All the same, I wonder where our place as living beings really is in the grand scheme of the universe.
In our normal day to day lives, the things we see and handle seem to be just about the right size for us to cope. We may feel humbled by the size of a mountain range or the depth of an ocean. We might feel superior to an insect in our yards. But all in all our surroundings somehow fit into our plane of comprehension. Some things are large, some are small, and somewhere in the middle of it is us. We have a sense of normalcy.
If our ordinary fields of experience are ‘normal’–then how come the world beyond is either too immense for our brains to compute or, in the case of quantum mechanics, too infinitesimal to even grasp the reality of it?
Why the excess of superlatives?
Why this exponential increase in size and distances as soon as the radius of observation leaves the boundary of our planet’s atmosphere? It’s all about physics, I guess, about dark matter and so-called dark energy, if they exist. But the ‘how’ is not what I am talking about. I keep asking myself ‘why’? Why must the scales of everything be so extreme? Who is the universe trying to impress?
One might say, it’s all a matter of perception. If we were larger creatures, like, say, the size of our sun, we might not be so intimidated by the sheer expanse of the universe. But I don’t think that’s true. We’d still be less than a speck on the mantle. The universe is just that stupendous. On the other hand, if we were smaller, maybe a microbe, might we feel closer to the world of particles? I don’t think so, either. Particles are so much stranger than anything that is made up of cells!
So, where do we fit in?
There is every indication, that our universe could only come into existence because it is exactly as it is. If it were any different in even the slightest detail it would have collapsed before time and space could ever manifest. There would have been no matter, no stars, no galaxies. But because the universe did form just as it did, the Milky Way exists and with it our solar system and our planet Earth. All of it belongs into the universe. Which means us, too, belong.
The genesis of life was a fundamental game changer in the universe. Before, there was no one to witness its grand performance. Which seems a waste! Even if it turns out that humanity may not be the crown of creation after all, if nothing else, us being here, gazing into the sky at night, trying to grasp the meaning of it all, is paying due courtesy to all the wonders that otherwise would go unnoticed. We can give ourselves that.
And now and then, when sleep eludes me, I can look up to the stars and feel at ease. Not all is well in the world, but the universe is as it should be.
Listening tip (in German): Podcast of astrophysicists Harald Lesch and Josef M. Gaßner on Spotify, Urknall, Weltall und das Leben