Astronomy, astronomers, and astrophysics : the overpowering immensity of the universe
A book excerpt from the Iconoclast Press online library.
I consider a certain friend of mine to be a fully realized master of surrender.
He is a brilliant, caustic, invective critic named Rick, who poses as a professional astrophysicist during the day, but at night and on weekends he removes his ivory-tower spectacles and returns to the glossy gazed outlook of one who couldn’t care less about anything, and wouldn’t budge an inch were the whole show to either vanish away before him, or keep chugging along on its merry and despairing way. It’s all one and the same to him or any other person who has learned that there is no difference, and so has become freed by indifference.
I suppose this noble acquiescence came about for Rick from all those years of investigating and contemplating the bewildering expanse of the nebulae, the magnitude of which must have placed mankind’s comparatively minuscule concerns and accomplishments into their proper station in his mind. When you’re dealing in angstroms and light-years, the relative dimensions of humanity’s efforts and ways tend quickly to fall between the cracks.
One time when I was visiting him at a telescope, on an observing run, this awful and emancipating reality came plummeting home to me, and, in a way, put me also in my proper place. It was when Rick pointed out a tiny speck of light on the enlarged observing screen used by professional astronomers to magnify the telescope’s image- a speck of light that was so infinitesimal it had to be amplified thousands of times for the human eye to even perceive its presence. And yet, as Rick nonchalantly pointed out to me, this was not a single star, but a cluster of over a million stars. That staggered me. That disintegrated me.
I have always loved the belittling feeling of lying on my back and staring up into the night sky, attempting to envision the enormity of the cosmos, but rarely have I felt the full-blown awareness of its imponderable immensity as profoundly as that evening when Rick pointed out that singular, trivial speck- one amongst trillions, one which I could not have even seen with my own eye on the blackest of nights. And it was only a tiny cluster- a mere million stars or so. And there I was, sitting on earth- a little satellite chunk of limestone with a few buckets of water sloshing about on it, which was imperfectly orbiting a small to medium sized star, one star, which we had decided to isolate from all others and call it a sun, our sun. In that moment I became a speck of dust.
No wonder then that life for Rick had become but a trifle at best avoided- an unfortunate bagatelle, which could hardly be tolerated by one who had long ago assimilated this humbling reality into his head.
I say Rick is arguably the most intellectually capable, and cognitively incomparable person I have ever met. A walking supercomputer who can ingest, digest, and regurgitate a limitless amount of data and information about all and everything, and then instantly flash on his mental screensaver which in bold italics declares- “Who Cares!”
I recall my personal astonishment and respect for the level of passionless attainment he had arrived at when one day, years earlier, he and I were out and about together, walking around town for no better reason than we were in town and we were walking about, and suddenly a thought came to me of something we could do, some action we could undertake or partake in to enliven the day and bring us some stimulation or other. And so I turned to Rick and presented my inspired option, expecting that he would appreciatively accept the possibility of engaging in life in some way or other. Boy was I in for a teaching. Upon hearing my puerile solicitation, Rick turned to me and, with the surrendered ambivalence of only the most advanced adept, he looked within me but for a brief, disconcerned instant, and then rhetorically remarked, “Why not?”
Two simple words, but let me tell you it was not your average “Why not?” It was a “Why not?” that came from nowhere and went nowhere; a “Why not?” that resounded out of a mind vacant of expectation of succor or release; a “Why not?” that was without hope, and yet beyond the childishness of hope; a “Why not?” that can only come from one who knows that all is lost and nothing ever was ours to be lost; a “Why not?” owned by no one, presented to nobody; a weather-beaten wanderer’s “Why not?” which comes from the stolidity of enduring endless days and nights in the over-conscious perception of life’s failings and limitations; a “Why not?” that came from one who had arrived at the lucid and immoveable acceptance that there is no solution, no way out, no solace or reprieve, no grand hurrah! waiting up ahead; it was a “Why not?” that implied no “Why?” for it was obvious that whatever must be done would be done because it didn’t matter whether we did it or not; a “Why not?” so profoundly at peace and unconcerned that I was set aback and shaken to realize that compared to him ...I still cared. And yet I cared in the wrong way, for, compared to Rick, I was like a little puppy, agog in the world, sucking pathetically away upon the dry tit of the dead bitch who had recently spawned me, and wagging my tail in expectant glee. And Rick was my stoic elder sibling, come out of the desiccated womb just moments before me and yet years ahead in reality- light years- and he stood aside, gazing off into the distance, and waiting for me to come to the painful and necessary recognition that the milk of life wasn’t gushing out, and that we were in for a great duration of waiting and hunger.
Back then I was still a somebody attempting to placate the gnawing hollow within me, but Rick had come to know that no earthly food could fill the pangs of absence we were destined to live and grow with, and in the end to learn to thrive upon.
(excerpted from In and Of: memoirs of a mystic journey, by Jack Haas)
Books by Jack Haas: Autobiography, Memoir, Spirituality, Mysticism, Comparative Religion, Poetry, Art, Photography.