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Inflammatus Et Accensus

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Posted by Benjamin Nelson on January 25, 2001 14:09:32 UTC

Inflammatus et Accensus

Sitting on the open-air patio at Harvard University’s Café Antico and listening to "Fac Me vere Tecum Flereone," we looked miles beyond the music -- north, over the heads of the verdant trees, where real lightening bolts flashed to the booming voices of the gods. With nothing but sky overhead, we leaned back in our seats and, lulled by the harmonies and the melodies (notes arranged in space and time) tried to count the random spray of stars. In the background, the aria boomed; this elaborate arrangement of just twelve notes, constrained even further by the contours of the sky, radiated outward for a few hundred yards, until its structure dissipated in the random jostlings of the molecules of air.

After a while, we were startled form the reverie by a star that suddenly seemed to break out of the pack, disturbing the celestial networks, inflammatus et accensus. The light moved too fast to be a planet -- or "wanderer," as the Greeks called them, trying to make sense of stars that seemed to come unstuck and meander across the sky. And it was too steady to be a meteor. Yet, instinctively laboring to classify this sudden anomaly, the brain threw out a hypothesis: A satellite, something made by people, as though someone had painted the Coca-Cola emblem on the moon?

But we quickly rejected that notion, as the ears pick up the sound of metal ripping sky -- an airplane flying in a direction we quaintly called "north." The brain, satisfied, settled back into equilibrium, the wonder dampened -- except for a lingering feeling of how eerie it all really is: the mystery of penumbra sapphire, tbe windsong of ancient trees, and that inside that tiny light are maybe three hundred people, each with a different reason for gong to Buffalo; each with a different story.

Still, Harvard’s open-air patio at Café Antico seemed the perfect perch for exploring the penumbra, where science’s shining light fades into darkness, to plumb the depths of what we know -- or think we know -- about this world in which we find ourselves. But more than just scientists, all of us struggle against the limits of our nervous systems, the computational power of the brain to compress and understand. We grasp at images and tell stories, trying to build ourselves a place in the world. And just like the various religions, scientists who ponder life’s beginnings also tell stories. Yes, they, too, are seekers of origins shaped by a belief in the importance of dualities, not good and evil, but the polarity of environment and adaptation. Combine this fundamental affinity with the rules of biology and we have a new creation story about the origins of humanity.

But in the end, there is no way to know whether our "stories" converge on a single truth, the way the universe really is, or if we are merely building simple artificial structures, tools to allow us to explain, to some extent, and to control. And yet we assume that there actually are laws of the universe out there, like veins of gold, and that we are miners extracting the ore. We -- all of us -- are adventurous explores uncovering Truth with a capital T, sifting order from randomness. It is our most basic drive: the obsession to find and impose order. Whether the orders we invent are geographic, religious, or scientific, inevitably, it seems, we come to identify the map with the territory, to insist that the lines we draw are real. And how hard it is to appreciate that one persons distortion can be another person’s reality, that we look at the world through different eyeglasses, that there are different ways of carving up the sky -- that we each have a different story.

January 28 marks the end of Harvard University's Reconciliation Symposium. This symposium was designed to encourage dialogue across the University and promote discussion, whether or not one believes that his place in the universe can be told from an analysis of Bible verse, or from a few underlying physical laws that generate a cosmos. All of us, in our different ways, are trying to see patterns in the swirl, to tell our stories, to find a home in a universe that sometimes seems oblivious to our existence.

B. L. Nelson

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