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Big things

Talk about looking at things from a broader perspective, you can’t get any broader than by doing so from the perspective of the universe. Which the discovery of the Higgs boson, or the so-called “God particle,” forces you to do.

I’ve been fascinated by the subject and been watching the Discovery Channel features on the cosmos and the earth’s (epically fragile) place in it. Almost serendipitously, I’ve just been reading a book called “A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing” by Lawrence Krauss, which is dedicated to the principle not just that it is perfectly possible for something to come out of nothing but that it happens all the time. It gives whole new meanings to the phrase. “‘Nothing’ makes sense.”

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That’s one of the mind-boggling paradoxes about all this. As is the fact that as you become a senior citizen and the future doesn’t stretch out before you as vastly as before, you get to be more inclined to gaze at things that stretch out beyond the farthest reaches of vision.

Krauss’ book, published early this year, actually anticipated, if not the discovery of the Higgs boson, at least an explanation for one puzzle. That is the question of why, if the universe is expanding at a velocity set by the Big Bang, planets are not wrenched away from their orbits and sent hurtling into the unknown. The hypothetical answer is that much of the universe consists of invisible “dark matter” and “dark energy”—the visible universe is estimated to be only about a tenth of the whole—which gives mass to things and slows down that velocity.

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What specifically does dark matter consist of? Higgs postulated a subatomic particle called the boson, which even Stephen Hawking said would not be discovered in his lifetime. He bet—and lost—$100 on it. The CERN, or the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, called so because it collides atomic particles at the speed of light to simulate the Big Bang, has just produced what could very well be it.

Not quite incidentally, it was Dan Brown who introduced the world to CERN in “Angels and Demons.” I read it some years ago while in the throes of a particularly severe attack of gout and needing to divert myself epically. The story has a group of CERN scientists discovering “anti-matter” in the course of colliding particles, a drop of it being capable of turning the Vatican into the black pit of Calcutta. But that, quite literally, is another story.

A byproduct of all this is the collision between science and religion, which have had their own share of big bangs over the centuries. I don’t know that I’m taking the easy way out here by saying that people will believe what they want to believe, and so long as religion does not continue to preach that the sun revolves around the earth and to torture unbelievers, I say live and let live. The majority of the earth’s inhabitants does not just feel the need to have God in their lives but actually feels God in their lives.

Life is full of enough mysteries, or ironies, as it is. One such is that it was actually a priest, Georges Lemaitre, who proposed the Big Bang as the origin of the universe. A physicist as well, he theorized in 1927 that the universe, rather than being static, was expanding, and owed its beginnings to an infinitesimal point called the “Primeval Atom.” After the theory gained validity, Pope Pius seized on it and proclaimed that it proved Genesis with God announcing “Let there be light.”

Lemaitre himself was embarrassed and objected to the Pope’s claim, saying his theory really held no theological implications. The Pope never mentioned it again. Lemaitre might as well have said, “Give unto science what is science’s and to religion what is religion’s.”

In the end, whether you’re religious or secular, pious or irreverent, you can always find in these things, if not  reaffirmation of your beliefs, a new disposition toward life.

Not least, it should inspire in you a sense of proportion about your scale in the vastness of the universe. Humility is not a virtue, it is an imperative. When you try to imagine that the universe has more than a hundred billion galaxies, dwarf galaxies alone consisting of 10 million stars (giant ones have trillions of them), each star having planets orbiting around them, you have to be awed by your own puniness. We’re not even a dot in a huge sheet of paper. If that perspective can only overwhelm this planet’s leaders into recognizing that the human species, which is just a few million years old (the universe is 13.7 billion, the earth 4.5 billion), has barely begun its journey, then maybe we can have less wars. It should at least give them pause to reconsider their sense of self-importance.

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It gives whole new perspectives to the saying “The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.”

Just as well, less utopian-ly, though enormousness has a way of inviting utopian Star-Trek-like thoughts, it should inspire in you a sense of wonder about life. Whether you look at it as the product of creation or evolution, you’ve got to marvel at the incalculable mystery of it. Truly there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies. Try contemplating quarks, black holes, dark matter and energy. Indeed, try contemplating, as Hawking did in solving the seemingly insolvable problem of a time before the Big Bang, the concept of no time, time itself, and not just space, being a product of the Big Bang. Who knows? Maybe all these feeble attempts to grasp the enormousness of what lies out there will goad us to attempt to grasp the even greater enormousness of what lies in here, inside us. Inner space as well as outer space. The dark matter in our souls as much as the dark matter in the universe.

But that’s an even bigger thing.

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TAGS: featured column, higss boson, Lawrence krauss, Religion, Science, subatomic particles, universe
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