66 kilometres per second

I have found, over the years, that I am drawn to a great many things and that my interest in these varied fields is very volatile. It is as though these interests are competing for more “brain space”; trying to make sure that at any given point of time, they are the first thing on my mind. Amongst these diverse interests is astronomy, otherwise known as the science of feeling irrelevant. Astronomy recently won the Brain Space Contest, successfully managing to dominate every waking moment of mine in what can only be described as a landslide victory.

You see, the world recently played host to the Eta Aquarids meteor shower. The shower is nothing special, so to speak: it happens every year, lasts two to three days, can be seen throughout the night but you have to wait until dawn to see it properly, and each meteor streaks across the sky so fast that there is barely time to get a glimpse of it (how fast? Take a guess). And yet, for reasons I still cannot exactly recall, I was adamant to see it.

So I picked up my phone and called (I texted, really, but called is so much more dramatic) up the few people I know here who would be interested in accompanying me to a faraway spot in the middle of the night. I was not very disappointed. At three in the morning, I set off from my house with my band of followers, blindly placing their trust (and, more importantly, their sleep) in my hands. Needless to say, I had been subjected to a plentiful of threats that past evening, warning me that there had better be something worthwhile to see if I wanted to return home in a recognizable state. I was, expectedly, terrified. At around four, we rendezvoused with some more of my friends on the way and together headed off to the isolated, hopefully light-free, area which would host us for the remaining hours of darkness.

A bit more walking, mostly uphill, and we were there. I had somehow managed to gather seven eager souls, all of who were expecting the dome to come to life at any moment. Two of them, busy bees that they are, left us atop that lonely hill, but the other five resolutely stayed back, cementing their interest, and their ominous warnings, for yet another time. And then, we waited.

Speaking from a very honest, very objective, point of view, it was not a comfortable wait. The hill on which we were perched was riddled with stones and twigs, making reclining extremely unpleasant and mosquitoes had waged a war against mankind, launching the first of their attacks on us. Despite all this, I still maintain that I have rarely been more at ease than I was on that night. I frequently found myself lost in concentration with my friends, or gazing up at whatever few stars I could see (the most inopportune of all cloud covers prevailed that day).

The walk there alone had been astoundingly refreshing. We had had a run in with quite a few guards, stationed specifically to stop this kind of nighttime strolling by the students, but had found them almost compliant with the state of affairs. A pack of dogs seemed to take a particular fancy to us, before deciding that the sexual pleasures they derive from their own species are greater than interspecific, platonic love. Even the murderous glares I had received when confessing that I did not exactly know the place to which we were going seemed to accentuate the perfection of the night. And then we had reached, and the tensions which had been climbing seemed to alleviate. Breathing was easier (mostly because we weren’t climbing uphill anymore), and there was an inherent feeling of a relaxed atmosphere which prevailed.

The hour and a half before dawn passed by very slowly; the movement of Pluto across the sky was one of the fastest things in our surrounding. Complaints had started ringing through the air, accusing me of leading them on a wild-goose chase, or of wasting their time; complaints which I deftly ignored in the anticipation of the sight, I was sure, we were about to see. Harbouring blind faith, I stared eastward, glaring in the direction where I knew the Aquarius constellation hung smugly in the sky, daring it to disappoint me tonight while also pleading for it to come through. I frequently checked my phone, reassuring myself that dawn would bring with it the promised shower.

The passing minutes were dampening to the spirit, and it truly seemed as though the night would be a fruitless one. Religious, though, in my expectations of the night, I remained undeterred: the sky would blaze with meteors this morning, I knew it. And in that moment, the sheer magnitude of, well, EVERYTHING, seemed to crash down upon me. All my beliefs and opinions on the grand cosmic scale of things came to me at once(opinions which I have once spoken about at length: The Great Cosmic Dice), and I found myself staring in awe at the steadily brightening sky. That we were here, waiting eagerly for a few bright flashes in the sky, seemed to me the greatest testament to the beauty of the universe, unphased in its entirety by the existence or absence of mankind. The universe, it hit me, didn’t care. However, it also struck me just how far we had come in our understanding of the universe itself: that we were here, waiting eagerly for a few bright flashes in the sky, was the greatest testament to how well we had understood the mysteries of nature.

And in that moment, it didn’t matter if I got to see the shower or not, because we had already acknowledged the universe and the existence of a phenomenon which didn’t need to be validated by mankind’s limited observation. It didn’t matter if we got to see the shower or not, because the hours we’d spent waiting for this little display meant nothing to the universe, and would mean nothing for the years and years to come. The Eta Aquardis would happen whether we were there to watch it or not.

I have often been of the opinion that the Universe is able to hear what we say, and while I acknowledge that the opinion is very faulty, sometimes the evidence is overwhelming. Even as I thought about how it wouldn’t matter at all whether we saw the shower or not, a bright light streaked across the sky, whiter than anything in the sky, so fast and so sudden that it was barely visible, and a small smile came upon my lips.

All this, for a faint white light, moving across the sky at sixty-six kilometres per hour.

 

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The Great Cosmic Dice

After a long time I find myself once again lost in the dense forest of thought. Distractions are perhaps the greatest allies of the mind, for they prevent it from going into the obsessive, trance like state which has so often been the downfall of the great. It is, therefore, with great mystery that I find myself immersed in my very own musings at a time when there is nothing around me, whichever way I may look, but a distraction of some form. Too much of a good thing, I suppose they call it.

It has been my desire for some time to write upon this subject; even before I laid claim to this particular corner of the Internet. If memory serves, and I have mentioned innumerable times before that it does, then I have had a fascination with the cosmos the very first time I looked up at the starry sky and realised that the stars were, in fact, more than sparkling lights on a black stretch of canvas. As early as gaining knowledge of the fact that there was something “out there”, I have wanted to know everything. Everything about everything, I used to call it.

Of course, it soon became apparent that knowing everything about everything is a sheer impossibility, because more something is being added to this everything every second, even as I sit here and type this out, so much has been done and added and created that my goal of learning everything has fallen short of its mark. Already, it would seem, I have started babbling about things which this post has nothing to do with. What is this post all about then, you may ask? Well, and bear with me while I grossly abuse poetic license here, this post is about how nothing really matters.

This rather cynical and pessimistic view is something I’ve been harbouring ever since I learnt of the concept of aliens. Ever since the idea that we are not alone in the Universe was put into my head, I’ve been wondering how much we matter, how much of a difference we make and, at the end of it all, how would things be different were we not here? The answer is one which I have had an inclination of for quite some time now, but have chosen not to accept until this moment. Perhaps I was afraid of the answer which seems irresolute in my mind, perhaps I am, like the common man, in denial.

Because the answer is that we don’t matter. The cosmic plan, if indeed there is one, would be not at all affected were the entire human population, or Planet Earth, or the Solar System or even the Milky Way to disappear. The simplicity of it all is baffling, to say the least. How could we not matter, when we are all that we know? Yet the truth of it is undeniable. Ask any self respecting logical thinker, and they shall tell you the same. I am, of course, making the assumption that the concept of “The Creator” no longer applies in the year 2015, for nothing would give me greater sorrow than to see this post being interpreted as an attack on a deity which doesn’t even exist.

Yes, it’s quite deterring when you dawn upon the conclusion yourself. If you have seen the famous movie called “The Theory of Everything”, which depicts the biography of brilliant physicist Stephen Hawking -one of the greatest minds of our time, then you’ll be familiar with what I am saying. In a conference, when asked whether or not Hawking, being an atheist, has a philosophy, he responds with something along the lines of the things I have mentioned above. The beauty of his response lies, as I have already mentioned, in its simplicity.

We spend years perfecting those aspects of ours which we believe are the most important and will be needed for later. We engage in pointless conversation and meaningless activities. We speak of using time as though the eighty or so years we have been given are somehow going to make a difference. We worry about things as though they have implications upon the great order of things, as though our actions somehow affect the cosmic reality. It’s amusing, almost, the things which we fuss over or work towards, when in the end none of it really matters. Nothing.

At the offset this seems extremely cynical and defeatist, but it is, in fact, the exact opposite. Because nothing of what we do matters in the end, we need not waste time doing it. We have been fortunate to have the power to understand that there are great cosmic forces at play, so why do we chose to fawn over things which have no consequence? Agreed that according to the argument I have just made, nothing matters, but having gotten the gift of intelligence, why do we chose to squander it over trivial matters, when there is the entire Universe to be understood and discovered?

The answer is, perhaps, the one which we all are looking for. Does this question not resemble the question which religions have been answering with faith, and which Science has always attempted to understand in its many, many forms? The question of which I speak is, of course, the one asking about the purpose of life. Science acknowledges that there are many parts to this question, and is working relentlessly to answer every single aspect. Ultimately, it all boils down to WHY.

WHY are we here? If nothing we do has any implications upon the cosmic order then WHY do we have the ability to do anything? WHY have we evolved understanding and logic and reason if not for some purpose? WHY do we have the basal desire to fill our lives with things, chores or whatever it is that we fill our lives with?

Religions take this question for all its value and present us with a simple answer. Simple, yes, but not even remotely complete or sufficient. God, according to theists, governs everything that there is, from purpose to action, and it is in God that we must trust our destiny.

That is, of course, completely unacceptable.

The answer, whenever we figure it out, will be plain and simple. There will be a reason, there is always a reason. And if there isn’t, then we’ll know that we are a cosmic joke. A die which the Universe has rolled and has landed upon us by chance. We serve no purpose. The genetics which has been my obsession for so long is nothing but chance. We must keep our minds open to that possibility, for it may just be the answer to everything: a random throw of the die; a lucky chance.

Once again I ask you, what was the point of this post? No new knowledge has been gleaned from this, so why does this exist? What is the purpose it serves? Perhaps none. Maybe it only exists because on this one random day I thought about putting this random content out there. But what if this post does serve a purpose? What if, by some miracle, this post finds itself in the hands of a devout theist and forces them to question their belief? We shall never know, or maybe we shall.

The chance of it all is what makes it worth it. This entire experience is better for having the knowledge that nothing we know or hypothesise may be true. That this may all be a huge joke being played upon us for the 13 or so billion years of the existence of the Universe. Ah, the thrill of randomness.

Dealing in joy

It has often come to my attention that the Universe has, over the course of the few billion years of its existence, lost its grip on the balance of things which usually governs everything we do. I tend to flatter myself every now and then and thus took it upon me to restore the balance which I so very sorely missed.

A word of advice here, one which I have myself created and which has nothing to do with the habit of which I spoke previously: maintaining the balance of the Universe is easier said than done. Valiantly though I had set out upon my conquest, I gave up unfortunately quickly.

Often, you will find that the need to be useful, and the desire to be productive can work miracles in the case of despair. The very same happened with me earlier this year. Feeling downhearted at the prospect off having let go of my noble desire, rather mission, I found solace and, for all intents and purposes, inspiration, in chocolate, of which too I have promised to speak.

It was perhaps the sinful, bitter taste of chocolate which awakened my senses as no imbalance of the Universe had. I looked around me and was startled to see that people spoke with one another in monotonous, expressionless tones and with dull, lifeless faces. Scattered amidst these scenes of indifference were façades of intense, unyielding misery.

I myself am a great admirer of joy: sheer, unadulterated humour is my idea of time best spent. To see this lack of joy in abundance in a surrounding which I was associated with did not sit well with me. I then decided to spread as much joy as I could, which at once reminded me of the restoration vow I had taken earlier. This got me thinking about how one large, integrated vow was much easier to keep than two rather difficult ones.

This logic, at the time of its conception, had made wonderful sense and so I was prompted to follow it through to the end. I did, and I can proudly say that I found a way to bring my integrated vow to life and to hold on to it. Fortunately, the plan unfolded flawlessly and seemed to have a lot of promise in store.

It is rather a simple pan you see. For every sad, miserable, teary-eyed person I find, I shall provide some form of joy, humour or comic relief to another. In such a way, I play my own trivial part in the restoration of the Universal balance along with spreading joy, thus fulfilling both of my vows. At the end of the day, I sit and match up my joyful people with the Universe’s miserable ones.

Soon, I spotted a glaring flaw in my thus far beautifully logical act of charity: the people that I do distribute joy to eventually become miserable too. And so, I decided to instigate a small change in my M.O. Instead of providing joy to a person for every miserable person I see, I decided to give out joy to as many people as I could.

One fine day, while championing the great cause of Universal balance, I was struck with brand new realisation. Since I was helping the Universe with restoring its balance, it would be senseless if the Universe didn’t pay me back somehow. And so, based upon that completely vague, absolutely abstract and downright senseless deduction, I set out looking for a gift, more payment than gift really, from the Universe. Adamant to prove to myself that I wasn’t in fact going crazy, I actually found something which could very well be Universe’s sign.

You see, every once in a while, when the Universe feels grateful for my help, it pays me back with ready-made humour. It may be a scenario which greatly amuses me, or seeing people laugh out, or anything which makes me feel like my conquest is, in fact, paying off. This may make absolutely no sense, but once you start to give out some joy, then you shall see the feeling of greatness which accompanies seeing joy in action. For spreading joy has a joy of its own.

Happy with the progress  I was making, I decided to tell my friend about my noble act, whose only query was regarding the identity of my dealing partner. I am an atheist, and so it made no sense to my friend that I should talk about the Universe as an entity. My response was rather obscure and is really quite difficult to explain but I shall try my best nonetheless.

When I talk about the Universe needing help or the Universe paying me back I don’t mean a particular entity who is somehow in charge of the various ongoings of things around us. I refer instead to the Universal sense of balance which is so very sorely missing nowadays. This is the same sense of balance which is responsible for the existence of day and night, for desert and ocean, for sky and ground, for good and evil, for light and dark.

“Who creates that balance? Looks to keep it stable?” asked my friend and, momentarily, I was stumped. Then I answered as best as I could: the beauty of the Universe is that it doesn’t need anyone to balance. Every single particle, every single molecule works to maintain that balance by its own. Every particle in the Universe will go about doing what it is meant to do irrespective of whether we spot it or not.

My friend’s next question was even more trying: “How do these particles know that it’s their job to give you funny stuff to laugh at?” And yet again I thought that my brilliant theory had met its close, but it hadn’t. The Universe doesn’t create anything for me, or for you, or for anyone. The Universe simply exists, it prolongs its own life, and should one spot something which they feel is out of place and they meddle, well so be it.

The only reason that the Universe seems out of balance to me is because I spot something and that it is out of balance. Maybe it is not so at all, maybe the Universe is perfectly in balance, maybe my meddling will have not make any difference at all and we will end up exactly where we were  supposed to in the first place.

My friend doesn’t like the concept of anything predestined. To all such people: maybe nothing is meant to be a particular way, maybe the Universal balance has been disturbed, maybe its been disturbed because ages ago someone meddled, maybe my meddling will also cause some effect, maybe the Universe does need someone to spot its discrepancies.

Whatever may be the case, as long as what I am doing doesn’t have any detrimental effects, I feel confident in carrying on with my mission. I shall keep doing what I do, until I can sense that the Universal balance has been somewhat restored. Wish me luck.