So declares Neil DeGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist with the American Museum of Natural History, and director of the Hayden Planetarium, in his 2017 book, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.
And that single quotation probably tells you all you need to know about how fun a read the book is, as one learns about what we know (“Matter tells space how to curve; space tells matter how to move.”), what we think we know but don’t ( “Just how voidy is the void of space?” is one of the questions Tyson poses [it’s not very voidy at all, as it turns out]), and what we don’t know: what dark matter actually is, for instance. Though I am pretty confident that I personally know the answer to that: based on its characteristics and effects on ordinary matter –which can be detected– dark matter is obviously the unconscious of the cosmos itself.
Would it not have an unconscious if we do, since we ourselves are stardust? But that’s a post (and poem) for a later date.
Anyway, my brother, a software engineer who designs stuff that keeps the Hubble up (literally) and an astrophysics geek, gave me this book for Christmas, knowing of my obsession (is not too strong a word for it) with the more micro-focused quantum physics, and thinking it would be good for me to (again, literally) expand the scope of my physics-related self-education.
Which I have been doing with great pleasure by way of this book. I love the humor and delight in the way Tyson writes, making for a seriously laugh-out-loud science page-turner…which is also a substantial one. But what I most love is the stuff itself, and the mind-blowing, breathtaking challenge of trying to understand —even a teeny bit— the principles, laws and concepts of physics. I love it because their laws and concepts are ultimately impossible to fully comprehend, and yet we live in the most intimate relationship to them possible: we are made of the very energies and matter and forces and trajectories that physics attempts to comprehend. So to grapple with these intellectually and imaginatively is to plunge deeper into the mystery of oneself also; into Mystery itself. Into “more awe, more awe,” which is perhaps what creation asks of us, in exchange for the consciousness we have been given with which to witness it?
And it occurs to me that the practices of psychotherapy (at least as I practice it), of creative activity (ditto), and of theoretical physics are really pretty much the same thing (not that the scale of my understanding is equivalent!): different roads and means of transportation in the same direction. All three (as well as– needless to say– lots of other disciplines also) are about exploring the mystery of existence in all dimensions, and not about “solving” and “deciding.” The latter impulses and activities have their place –oh yes for sure– but as a reflexive reaction to a confrontation with the unknown, the impulse to reduce everything to a problem or a certainty tends to make the world of our understanding smaller, not larger, since it seeks to make things fit into the frameworks of how we already think things are, and to minimize or “solve” away the stuff we’re troubled by.
Which brings to mind the beloved-to-me opening stanza of the poem, An Hölderlin (“To Holderlin“) by Rainer Maria Rilke (translation mine):
We are not permitted to loiter
even with the familiar.
From what’s fully-imagined the spirit
casts itself off and plunges
abruptly toward other imaginings
yet to be fulfilled.
Still waters are for eternity only.
Here, it is best to fall, to surrender
from the known feeling into the unknown one,
Or, as DeGrasse Tyson himself lyrically puts it: “We are stardust brought to life, then empowered by the universe to figure itself out — and we have only just begun.”