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Late Night Stargazing

December 30, 2010

There’s nothing more wonderful than waking up late at night and having nothing to do.  No work, no school, no phone calls – nothing.  It’s pitch dark outside and the only sound you can hear is that of crickets chirping.  That’s when I like to slip out and make my sojourn into the darkness of the night, deep into the forest, parking myself in this distant field here, out in the middle of nowhere, rural Missouri.

As I’m making my way there, my eyes are slowly adjusting to the dark.  The stars in the sky, once washed out by the street and city lights, now are coming into view.  I sit down beside those trees you see there, relax, and think about absolutely nothing.  I just sit there and reflect on the universe.   The experience is just like that of this video.

The darkness hides the world.  It’s sort of like a Christian closing their eyes during prayer.  It’s a time to focus the mind away from all of that, and think about something deeper and more profound.  I like to think about life, love, and the nature of our universe.   And when I finally get tired of that, I lay on my back and look up.  I see this.

If you’ve never had this experience, I highly recommend it.  In this world it is so easy to forget what’s really going on all around us.  And no, I’m not talking about “current events”.  It’s a common belief that to be informed about the world, you’re supposed to read the news.   I skim the news here and there, but do we really need to fill our minds everyday with all the murders, wars, and natural disasters to be “informed”?  I don’t know, but that doesn’t seem to me to be what’s really important.  That’s not life.  That’s not reality.  That’s not the “news”.   Oh, I suppose you’ll miss the politicians posturing, won’t hear the lies about our so-called economic recovery (regardless of the fact that none of our fundamentals are sound), or hear the religious bigots trying to shove religion down our throats, but I think we can live without most of that.

I became a physicist because I got tired of that world.  I felt like to continue existing within the “normal” world, I’d have to dumb myself down to a level I just can’t stand any longer.  I got tired of business and all the crooked scumbags you deal with.  I’m tired of Wall Street and their casino, or the Federal Reserve playing God with our lives and the economy.  I’m tired of greed.  I’m tired of religion, holy wars and superstition.  I’ve had enough with it all.  I’m not living that way anymore.  I’m not playing the game any longer.  I’m not going to fight with everyone around me to get to the top of the greasy pole, nobody ever being satisfied with their lives, and always wanting more, more, more.  I decided to spend my time connecting with the universe, and I haven’t found a better way to do that than to understand the laws which govern it.

Physics is the only subject I’ve found which does that.  It connects you with everything around you.  The only other subjects I’ve found which are almost as powerful are biology and neuroscience.  Studying life, the brain, and the natures of the creatures around me is definitely a passion of mine.  Thinking on those subjects, the “normal” world seems to fade into the distance, becoming a small spec, like a single star in the night sky.

Richard Feynman talked about physics adding an emotional pleasure to the things you see around you.  It enhances everything.  Everything becomes far more complicated and grand, the small and the large.  Even the “simple” things in life become so complicated that no matter what may be going on in your life, you can’t help but be left with a feeling of, “Wow, something really amazing is going on here.”  I spent all day today studying vision science and the brain, and the more I learn, the more I’m overwhelmed at all my brain is doing.  In my brain, trillions of operations are taking place in parallel, all to give me this simple experience of sitting here, typing out this blog post for all of you.

It’s all so chaotic, yet at the same time it’s ordered.  It’s yin and yang.

I made the mistake in my earlier years of pursuing wealth instead of following my bliss, as Joseph Campbell always said.  He relates a rather wonderful story in his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces.   This excerpt is a little long, but it’s worth reading it all.

In an ancient story called “The Conference of the Birds”, a flock of a thousand birds, during a time of great upheaval and darkness, suddenly glimpse an image of wholeness—an illumined feather. They thusly feel encouraged to take a long and arduous journey to find out what amazing bird this illumined feather belongs to. This narrative in poetic form was written in the eleventh century by the Persian Sufi mystic Farid ad-Din Attar. It tells about a remarkable saga with many long episodes that precisely describe the psyche’s perilous journey to seek the Soul of souls.

When the illumined feather floats down from the sky, one of the wisest of the birds reveals that this feather is in fact a precognition —a visionary glimpse of the Simorgh, the Great One. Oh, how the birds are buoyed up then. The birds are of many different kinds: short-beaked, long-billed, fancy-plumed, plain-colored, enormous, and tiny. But, regardless of size, shape, or hue, the birds who have witnessed this sudden and evanescent sight of the lighted feather band together. They make thunder as they rise up into the sky, all in order to seek this radiant source. They believe this sovereign creature to be so wondrous that it will be able to light their darkened world once again. And thus the creatures begin the grueling quest.

…. there are some birds who also wander off the path and those who flee it. The birds are, in essence, questing for the fiery phoenix, that which can rise from its own ashes back up into illumined wholeness again. In the beginning, the thousand birds set out to enter into and pass through seven valleys, each one presenting different barriers and difficult challenges. The thousand birds endure increasingly hostile conditions, terrible hardships, and torments —including horrifying visions, lacerating doubts, nagging regrets. They long to turn back. They are filled with despair and exhaustion. The creatures receive no satisfaction, nor rest, nor reward for a very long time.

Thus, more and more of the birds make excuses to give up. The attrition rate continues, until there are only thirty birds left to continue this harsh flight that they all had begun with such earnest hearts —all in quest for the essence of Truth and Wholeness in life —and, beyond that, for that which can light the dark again.

In the end, the thirty birds realize that their perseverance, sacrifice, and faithfulness to the path —is the lighted feather, that this same illumined feather lives in each one’s determination, each one’s fitful activity toward the divine. The one who will light the world again —is deep inside each creature. That fabled lighted feather’s counterpart lies ever hidden in each bird’s heart.

At the end of the story, a pun is revealed. It is that Si-Morgh means thirty birds. The number thirty is considered that which makes up a full cycle, as in thirty days to the month, during which the moon moves from a darkened to a lit crescent, to full open, to ultimate maturity, and thence continues on. The point is that the cycle of seeing, seeking, falling, dying, being reborn into new sight, has now been completed.

There is one last advice given to anyone else who might glimpse such a lighted feather during darkness and long to follow it to its source. The counsel is presented by the writer of the story, and in absolute terms —as if to say, there will be no more shilly-shallying around regarding “Ought I to go where I am called? or not?” The definitive guidance is this:

Whosoever desires to explore The Way
Let them set out—for what more is there to say?

– Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces

My feather is physics and studying the nature of the mind.  It has eventually lead me to things like this.

This video mentions a creator.  I myself am an agnostic.  I don’t feel confident enough to make such grand claims as to knowing the origin of the universe, but it’s a good video nonetheless.

I think the hardest thing for me to think about is, “Wow, it’s all really there.  When I look up at these stars, there’s black holes, quasars, supernovas, it’s all going on.  Billions of galaxies, each with billions of stars.”    Then I get a phone call asking me to do some software work because a report needs changed.  I sigh and think, “This is so trivial and stupid.”  Then I’m in class and the professor is asking us to memorize pages and pages of information, worthless regurgitation.  A thought runs through my mind, “Our brain didn’t evolve to regurgitate pages of random facts.  Studies show that a few months from now we won’t even remember half of these random facts we’re memorizing.”  I get angry and then I tell myself, “There’s no use getting angry.  I can’t change any of this.”  I let out a sigh and just do what I’m told to do.  I’ve been trying to keep myself from running down humanity all the time, but I can’t help it.  When I look at the world and what we as humans spend our time doing, Shakespeare comes to mind,

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
– William Shakespeare

Or maybe this might be the better quotation,

Being born is like being kidnapped. And then sold into slavery.
– William Shakespeare

When I’m forced to do all kinds of bullshit to earn money, that’s certainly how I feel.  I can’t help but laugh to myself when I hear students say to me, “This is ridiculous.  Why do we have to do this?  Honestly, why can’t we use our calculators on this math exam?  We have to divide numbers out by hand, and for what?  When we’re on the job, it’s not like we won’t have access to our calculators or be asked to do engineering work without our computers and materials.”  I just smile back and shrug silently thinking, “Life’s full of bullshit.  You better get used to it.  It’s not like it ends in the workplace.  Before you know it, you’ll have a boss who asks you to do all sorts of ridiculous things, even more ridiculous than not having access to a calculator on a math exam.”   I remember working as a network administrator of a medical clinic.   I was idle in my office, caught up with everything.  They had just hired a new manager and she walked into my office and said, “You don’t have anything to do?  That’s not fair for you.  I’ll find something for you to do.”  I was then escorted to the storage room and had the joy of inventorying each individual q-tip and band-aid.  Those students will have their fun later.  Thinking on that note, how about one last Shakespeare quote for the night?

Expectation is the root of all heartache.
– William Shakespeare

Topics: Personal, Philosophy, Physics | No Comments »

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