Terror and mystery: An excerpt from The Sacred Depths of Nature by Ursula Goodenough
Winterviews concludes today. From the Solstice (Dec. 21st) till the next Cross-quarter (Feb. 4th), we’ve brought you non-stop interviews and other goodies from big-name authors. Missed some? Catch up on your reading with the links below.
- Dr. Glenys Livingstone, author of PaGaian Cosmology – Dec. 21
- Dr. Chet Raymo, author of When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy – Dec. 25
- Chris Stedman, author of Nonprophet Status – Jan. 8
- Dr. Brendan Myers, author of Loneliness and Revelation – Jan. 15
- Rev. Michael J. Dangler, Druid and Senior Priest of Three Cranes Grove – Jan. 22
- Dr. Ursula Goodenough, author of The Sacred Depths of Nature – Jan. 29
The last of our Winterviews authors is none other than Professor Ursula Goodenough. It is still relatively rare to find a readable, moving, awe-inspiring narrative of science. From the dynamics of cells to human emotion, The Sacred Depths of Nature reveals the throbbing heart of the universe. Goodenough is not just a scientist, she’s also a storyteller. Today, she graciously shares with us an excerpt from her book.
I’ve had a lot of trouble with the universe. It began soon after I was told about it in physics class. I was perhaps twenty, and I went on a camping trip, where I found myself in a sleeping bag looking up into the crisp Colorado night. Before I could look around for Orion and the Big Dipper, I was overwhelmed with terror. The panic became so acute that I had to roll over and bury my face in my pillow.
- All of the stars I see are part of but one galaxy.
- There are some 100 billion galaxies in the universe, with perhaps 100 billion stars in each one, occupying magnitudes of space that I cannot begin to imagine.
- Each star is dying, exploding, accreting, exploding again, splitting atoms and fusing nuclei under enormous temperatures and pressures.
- Our sun too will die, frying the Earth to a crisp during its heat-death, spewing its bits and pieces out into the frigid nothingness of curved spacetime.
The night sky was ruined. I would never be able to look at it again. I wept into my pillow, the long slow tears of adolescent despair. And when I later encountered the famous quote from physicist Steven Weinberg – “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless” – I wallowed in its poignant nihilism. A bleak emptiness overtook me whenever I thought about what was really going on out of in the cosmos or deep in the atom. So I did my best not to think about such things.
But, since then, I have found a way to defeat the nihilism that lurks in the infinite and the infinitesimal. I have come to understand that I can deflect the apparent pointlessness of it all by realizing that I don’t have to seek a point. In any of it. Instead, I can see it as the locus of Mystery.
- The Mystery of why there is anything at all, rather than nothing.
- The Mystery of where the laws of physics came from.
- The Mystery of why the universe seems so strange.
Mystery. Inherently pointless, inherently shrouded in its own absence of category. The clouds passing across the face of the deity in the stained-glass images of Heaven.
The word God is often used to name this mystery. A concept known as Deism proposes that God created the universe, orchestrating the Big Bang so as to author its laws, and then stepped back and allowed things to pursue their own course. For me, Deism doesn’t work because I find I can only think of a creator in human terms, and the concept of a human-like creator of muons and neutrinos has no meaning for me. But more profoundly, Deism spoils my covenant with Mystery. To assign attributes to Mystery is to disenchant it, to take away its luminance.
I think of the ancients ascribing thunder and lightning to godly feuds, and I smile. The need for explanation pulsates in us all. Early humans, bursting with questions about Nature but with limited understanding of its dynamics, explained things in terms of supernatural persons and person-animals who delivered droughts and floods and plagues, took the dead, and punished or forgave the wicked. Explanations taking the form of unseen persons were our only option when persons were the only things we felt we understood. Now, with our understanding of Nature arguably better than our understanding of persons, Nature can take its place as a strange but wondrous given.
The realization that I needn’t have answers to the Big Questions, needn’t seek answers to the Big Questions, has served as an epiphany. I lie on my back under the stars and the unseen galaxies and I let their enormity wash over me. I assimilate the vastness of the distances, the impermanence, the fact of it all. I go all the way out and then I go all the way down, to the fact of photons without mass and gauge bosons that become massless at high temperatures. I take in the abstractions about forces and symmetries and they caress me, like Gregorian chants, the meaning of the words not mattering because the words are so haunting.
Mystery generates wonder, and wonder generates awe. The gasp can terrify or the gasp can emancipate.
Reprinted with permission from:
Goodenough, U. (1998). The Sacred Depths of Nature. New York: Oxford University Press. Pp. 9-13.
Ursula Goodenough is Professor of Biology at Washington University. One of America’s leading cell biologists, she is the author of a best-selling textbook on genetics, and has served as President of the American Society of Cell Biology and of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science. She and her family live in St. Louis, Missouri, and in Chilmark, Massachusetts, on Martha’s Vineyard. (bio text from Sacred Depths book flap, courtesy of Ursula Goodenough)