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Illuminating The Void

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Posted by Benjamin Nelson on January 23, 2001 21:03:09 UTC

In the beginning was a universe of mathematical purity that shattered to give life to the universe in which we find ourselves today. How is this belief so different from the belief of the Trinity, the efficacy of the sacraments or the objective reality of God? The point is that we are a species of believers who instinctively long for symmetries, and rather than let ourselves be overwhelmed by randomness, we construct creation myths, and dream of a time when order prevailed. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, the mind abhors randomness. Automatically we see pictures in the stars above us as naturally as spiders spin webs. We come to identify the pictures with our own creation, to insist that the lines drawn in the sky are real -- because we believe they are real -- whether the pictures were created by Physical Law, God, Red Bear, the Lark who sings his song to the sun or Coyote, who stole a pouch of star crystals, scattering them randomly throughout the universe.

On December 6th, WPBDC (Washington D. C. Public Broadcasting) featured the Emmy and Peabody Award winning, 13-hour documentary, Cosmos, in which the late theoretical physicist, Dr. Carl Sagan, told a compelling story. It was a story of how it all began, with an explosion that occurred some ten to twenty billion years ago, creating all matter and energy, even the dimensions -- even the ones unknown. It was an explosion so powerful, we were told, that we can still detect its afterglow amid the snow on our TV screens and in the hissing of radiotelescopes.

Shortly after seeing Cosmos, I downloaded the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence)-Arecibo radiotelescope screensaver. The Arecibo Radio Observatory, represented by a glowing green radiotelescope, found its place as an icon in the bottom right of my computer screen. It was an eerie sensation, "downloading" a computer program over a telephone line -- streams of code were transmitted in the form of an offensive whine, and when the message was received, a new icon appeared on the screen. Double-click to activate, and, wonder of wonders, a new calculating machine is installed.

But the signal itself cannot calculate. If you had tapped into the line and captured the modem tones, you would not have all the information necessary to construct a radiotelescope. To begin with, there are not actually 1s and 0s in the telephone line but rather tones arbitrarily assigned these values; you must already have the code. Thus, any digital message would be useless without meaning or context.

Context is everything, and to expect our distant galactic neighbors to interpret our signals is just as hopelessly unrealistic as us trying to interpret theirs. Even to a culture that amuses itself with the physical vibrations we call music, how meaningful would Marilyn Manson or Mahler be without a millennia of musical history as a foundation? So we can forget about sending diagrams of hydrogen atoms to other worlds; we might as well send a Will Rogers decoder ring instead.

Nevertheless, if the meaning of our messages are indecipherable, we can still hold out hope that anyone or anything that we might consider intelligent would at least recognize the existence of simple patterns or regularities unlikely to have occurred by chance -- assuming that "symmetry" itself is more than a human construct. But surely if there is anything fundamental in the universe besides matter and energy, it is the universal truth of pattern and form, right?

But who says that pattern and form are truly universal? We assume that physical laws are the same everywhere and then interpret our observations accordingly, also assuming that there must be other vessels of consciousness discovering those same laws. And what if there really aren’t other vessels of consciousness out there? What if we really are -- horror or horrors -- alone? But by even asking this question we betray our own attempt to fit the mystery into a framework in which rational explanations must always prevail. So perhaps the real question is why; why the search for extraterrestrial intelligence? Indeed, why search at all?

Our species seems like a tiny flame flickering on the periphery of a vast blackness trying to illuminate the void. Who gave us this burden, and why should anyone or anything beyond our celestial composite care? Why should we? Still, when one thinks of the burning curiosity that drives astrophysicists and cosmologist ever higher into the dizzying altitudes of abstraction, it is hard not to believe that we are all participating in something universal, something holy, that the pageant must unfold beyond our planet. And perhaps we really are merely one among a myriad of players gathering bits, abstracting concepts, building great edifices of theory -- intellectual Towers of Babel that reach higher and higher into the stratosphere. High enough, perhaps, to make out, just barely, the scaffolding of other builders, the flickering of other realities.

Ultimately, though, there are no guarantees. Not for the Pythagoreans who gaze into the confusion around them and insist that all is made of number, nor for the Fundamentalists with their attempts to understand the universe through biblical interpretation. Even the Cosmologists and Theoretical Physicists with their search for hidden harmonies battle over the same spiritual ground. All are trying to make sense of life’s overwhelming complexity, to come to terms with the fact that, for all our well-laid plans, we are still buffeted by contingency and chance. But for those of us who stand before science’s airy cathedrals with a mixture of wonder and skepticism, but have found little satisfaction in other matrices of belief, the night sky is the perfect place for a search. Indeed, the frightening clarity of the stars invites one to look upward and wonder at the pictures mythology has drawn in the heavens. And as we huddle in the darkness, shinning our lights into the penumbra, we can satisfy our longing for buried symmetries shattered, giving birth to a real world of universal truth and perfect understanding. -- B. L. Nelson December 10, 2000

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