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MIT staff blogger Chris Peterson SM '13

I would like to find an astronomer to talk to by Chris Peterson SM '13

No admissions. Just good writing.

I just returned from a week’s “vacation” with family and friends. I put “vacation” in quotations not because it wasn’t wonderful – it was – but only because, as is so often the case with vacations, I return from mine more exhausted than when I embarked. So I’ve spent most of the day digging out from under the work that accumulated while I was not working, and take what comfort I can from the knowledge that I was gone but certainly not forgotten.

I’ve got a blog post in the works about how to write your college essays. I just finished working with the MITES and E2 kids so this subject is both fresh in my mind and timely for yours as the application season approaches. I hope to post it some day soon.

That day is not this day. Today I am just going to rip a post from Ta-Nehisi Coates – an editor at The Atlantic and one of my favorite bloggers – in which he quotes the introduction to E.L. Doctorow‘s novel City of God. I quote it for the same reasons TNC did in his post: because it’s a shocking reminder of the strength of good writing. Reading this introduction is like being kicked in the face by an ox, except rather than concussing the reader it snaps everything into focus.

No hidden message or commentary from me here. Just good writing. Read and enjoy.

So the theory has it that the universe expanded exponentially from a point, a singular space/time point, a moment/thing, some original particulate event or quantum substantive happenstance, to an extent that the word explosion is inadequate, though the theory is known as the Big Bang. What we are supposed to keep in mind, in our mind, is that the universe didn't burst out into pre-existent available space, it was the space that blew out, taking everything with it in a great expansive flowering, a silent flash into being in a second or two of the entire outrushing universe of gas and matter and darkness-light, a cosmic floop of nothing into the volume and chronology of spacetime. Okay?
And universal history since has seen a kind of evolution of star matter, of elemental dust, nebulae, burning, glowing, pulsing, everything flying away from everything else for the last fifteen or so billion years. But what does it mean that the original singularity, or the singular originality, which included in its submicroscopic being all space, all time, that was to voluminously suddenly and monumentally erupt into concepts that we can understand, or learn-what does it mean to say that ... the universe did not blast into being through space but that space, itself a property of the universe, is what blasted out along with everything in it?
What does it mean to say that space is what expanded, stretched, flowered? Into what? The universe expanding even now its galaxies of burning suns, dying stars, metallic monuments of stone, clouds of cosmic dust, must be filling ... something. If it is expanding it has perimeters, at present far beyond any ability of ours to measure. What do things look like just at the instant's action at the edge of the universe? What is just beyond that rushing, overwhelming parametric edge before it is overwhelmed? What is being overcome, filled, enlivened, lit?
Or is there no edge, no border, but an infinite series of universes expanding into one another, all at the same time? So that the expanding expands futilely into itself, an infinitely convoluting dark matter of ghastly insensate endlessness, with no properties, no volume, no transformative elemental energies of light or force or pulsing quanta, all these being inventions of our own consciousness, and our consciousness, lacking volume and physical quality in itself, a project as finally mindless, cold, and inhuman as the universe of our illusion.
I would like to find an astronomer to talk to. I think how people numbed themselves to survive the camps. So do astronomers deaden themselves to the starry universe? I mean, seeing the universe as a job? (Not to exonerate the rest of us, who are given these painful intimations of the universal vastness and then go about our lives as if it is no more than an exhibit at the Museum of Natural History.)
Does the average astronomer doing his daily work understand that beyond the celestial phenomena given to his study, the calculations of his radiometry, to say nothing of the obligated awe of his professional life, lies a truth so monumentally horrifying-this ultimate context of our striving, this conclusion of our historical intellects so hideous to contemplate-that even one's turn to God cannot alleviate the misery of such profound, disastrous, hopeless infinitude? That's my question.
In fact if God is involved in this matter, these elemental facts, these apparent concepts, He is so fearsome as to be beyond any human entreaty for our solace, or comfort, or the redemption that would come of our being brought into His secret.

3 responses to “I would like to find an astronomer to talk to”

  1. Mark F says:

    The word “good” is inadequate. This writing is inspirational, a bit disorienting too. At one moment, life may seem infinitely complex and convoluted on Earth. Yet, that is only 0.000000000000000000014 the size of the observable universe! What I love most about this piece of writing is how skillfully it taps into the gray area between the scientific and the spiritual while paralyzing all sense of reality. Beautiful.

  2. daniel tackie (NII) says:

    thinking of tranfering to MIT, need help please.

  3. KP says:

    Wow, I love his writing style.
    Personally, I want to be a freelance science journalist/blogger, so it’s pretty cool!