He was twenty-three and as he stared up into the depths of a starry sky he realized he didn’t know a thing. He was freezing and tired and beginning to despair because with every question he tried to answer he could only come up with more questions. He found himself contemplating his own existence and nothing made sense to him anymore. His reality was beginning to unravel in front of his eyes.
He took the couple of dollars and the spare change he had out of his pocket and clinched them in his hand. It took him some time to take his eyes off of the abyss above him and when he finally did his fear was realized. He saw for the first time in his life not the currency of his country, with the forefathers printed and engraved on them, but bits of paper and small round scraps of metal. He realized the truth of money--that money was just an idea and that that was all of the power that it had ever held. He traced the history of it in his mind from where he stood into the depths of the past. Even before his country had left the gold standard the paradigm behind money had still existed. Gold had only ever been worth something because a caveman twenty thousand years ago had coveted the shiny metallic element. As society formed it had conformed to the same train of thought with every transaction that occurred in the pursuit of gold since the element had first shone in the eyes of his ancestors.
His mind was racing now and it didn’t stop with economic realizations. He looked up into the sky again; the sky that had been over his head every night for his entire life, and saw the enormity of it all for the first time. It was in that instant that he knew that there was no way for him to ever begin to conceive of the sheer size of the universe nor even to understand his infinite smallness. He may have been seeing bright stars but he knew now that he was bearing witness to the setting suns of the Milky Way Galaxy.
How was it that he could matter in the grand scheme of the unfolding universe? Staring harder into the void and with a dawning awareness he recalled a National Geographic television program that he had seen on the Hubble Space Telescope. The thought of those far away galaxies that the telescope had photographed now terrified and entranced him. He was beginning to see it. The light that the lens of Hubble had captured had traveled at speeds he could not fathom for billions of years. Humanity could not even discern if those galaxies still existed and science would not know the fate of them for millions of years to come. If they no longer existed then the light emitted from their destruction was millions if not billions of years away still traveling towards them through the dark depths of space. He thought about all of this with a numbness of the mind. It was as if his human feelings had been turned off and he had been removed from himself as he viewed his setting from a distance. He had lost most of the sensation of his body without any help from the cold that surrounded him while he stood in the frost covered field with his eyes upon the sky above.
He knew from taking an astronomy class in college that the sun that the earth revolved around was just a single star in a galaxy that was made up of hundreds of billions of other stars. He knew that it was more likely for a foreign star to house an alien solar system than for it to exist without satellites. He called earth his home as it floated within the confines of the Milky Way Galaxy, but it was just one galaxy of hundreds of billions of others that all contained an immeasurable amount of stars that made up the universe. He had even read that physicists had proposed that multiple universes existed outside of their own. How was it that he mattered at all?
He started to dwell on those strange galaxies and on life itself. He had once read about the mathematical probability of other life existing in space but now it was beginning to sink in. Those destructed galaxies of the far beyond had surely contained life at some point and probably contained intelligent life, but now it was gone forever. Then he thought that nothing was left of them other than the probability that they had existed but no discernible proof of their existence at all. The evidence of their existence had either imploded into darkness, exploded into heat and light, or had been swallowed into a larger neighboring galaxy. If life had existed there it no longer did and they would never know about it. If that alien species had been intelligent it would not matter now. Their triumphs and downfalls as a population had been wiped away with the folding of their galaxy into the universe.
Then he applied these thoughts to his own galaxy. Mankind would one day experience the death of the last individual of its species and with that death the whole history of humanity would be forgotten unless God or some extraterrestrial life had recorded it all--a notion that he could never be sure of. Later on the Sun would die and the solar system would be lost to the galaxy and that further still beyond that the galaxy would be lost to the universe. He stood in the frozen grass shivering. At some point Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Attila the Hun, Caesar, Christ, Da Vinci, Einstein, Hitler, Gandhi, himself, and everyone else’s existence would be forgotten in the entropy of the universe--never to be remembered again.
Then it occurred to him that if it all will be forgotten how will any of it have ever mattered? Nothing would be remembered and there would be no proof that it had existed. It would come to pass, he realized, that all life no matter where it had lived would be lost. He thought about the existence of man from the perspective of the universe and saw mankind as just a brief explosion of life on one of its planets. Relative to the age of the universe, humanity would live for less than a fraction of a second before it was gone forever. “When the sun sets on the existence of man the universe will continue to unfold as it had before man existed and will do so seemingly unaffected and without concern”, he thought. Then he looked at the universe from man’s perspective. If all would be forgotten was it not safe for him to wonder if the individual observing the universe was the master of what mattered? It seemed that it was partially true. He did have within himself the power to decide what mattered in his life but society had its say on the subject as well. He had already realized that money existed because most of the people who make up society seemed to agree that bits of paper and metallic coins were of some inherent worth. He realized that laws had been set aside by society to govern the people for various reasons, but he was also aware that the world society was made up of seven billion living and dying, thinking and dreaming individuals who did not all see the world in exactly the same way. Society had seemed to take on a life of its own through the unity of seven billion individual cells that made up the body of the organism of mankind. “We all think differently, at least a little”, he thought. He came to the conclusion that there was considered by most people of society to be one true reality, but as he thought about it he realized that the reality of society was the well coordinated overlap of most people’s individual realities grouped together. He concluded that the subtle differences in the realities of people were each individual’s different perspectives of the universe and that the small lack of overlap, the difference in perception, was the building block of each individual’s personality. The people who lived a reality too far away from the so called norms of society? “Those are the outliers”, he thought, “they are the ones that we have deemed as being insane”. His heart and mind went out to those people for an instant in the dark night.
Then he began to have what he felt most people would consider to be a crazy thought. It dawned on him that the only perspective that he had on the universe was his own and that it had been brought about by the collection of his senses over the course of his lifetime. He could read up on histories of the past, hear stories from someone who had experienced an event, or he could even learn about the existence of the universe prior to his own life but he had never experienced any of those things for himself. He could perceive of their existence through his imagination, but since he had not been there to experience them he would never truly know what it had been like to experience them at all. He began to feel unsure of the universe in which he lived. He was aware that people died every day and that the universe continued to thrive unaffected but as he breathed cold air into his lungs he questioned whether the universe continued to exist for those who had died. If he did not perceive of the universe prior to the existence of his life and the only knowledge that he had gained was through his own senses then if he died and ceased to be able to be aware of the universe did it still exist? “If a tree falls in the woods and nothing is there to hear it does it make a sound?” He had brought himself to think of the age old question in a way he had never thought about it before.
He continued to stand there in the cold, transfixed under the night sky. He may have been looking out onto the constellations of the northern hemisphere but his mind’s eye was staring into the depths of the abyss and the abyss was beginning to stare back into him. He had been a student of chemistry at the university that he had attended and he had spent his college years pursuing an understanding of the atomic world. He thought about all of those elements that made up the periodic table and started to concentrate on the structure of atoms. It was almost second nature for him to know that atoms were made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons that followed a fairly uniform structure--electrons are much less massive than the nucleus of the atoms which contain the protons and neutrons and because of that the electrons orbit the nucleus in varying energetic states. He surmised that it was more than just irony that the planets of the solar system also revolved around their massive sun or that the sun itself would revolve around the center of the galaxy in a model that looked strikingly similar in structure to that of the atom. Was there some sort of physical order that existed in the apparent chaos of the universe and if there was then why did it exist?
He reflected on the courses that he had taken in biology and how he had learned the step by step advancement in complexity of life known as the anatomical levels of organization. It stated that cells were the basic building blocks of life and that many cells made up tissues, that many tissues made up organs, many organs made up organ systems, and that many organ systems made up an organism. He thought on this notion for a long time and saw the scope of its range was far too narrow. Boiling things down to the mysterious quantum world he saw the levels of organization in this way: particles come together to form quarks, quarks form protons and neutrons, electrons gravitate around the nucleus to form the atom, those atoms bind together to form compounds, compounds become increasingly complex to eventually form organelles, multiple organelles work in unison to form an organelle system, organelle systems form the cell, multiple cells form tissues, many tissues form an organ, organs come together to form an organ system, organ systems synchronize themselves to form an organism, organisms collect themselves into a population, populations of organisms form a community, communities in turn form an ecosystem. All of the ecosystems on earth form the unified biosphere of life on the planet, the planet comes together with all other surrounding masses to form the solar system, the solar system with billions of other solar systems make up the galaxy, and the galaxy is one of hundreds of billions of other galaxies that make up the universe. Then, based upon the hypothesis of mathematical modeling, the universe was one universe of a proposed multiverse theory. His mind was blown by the fact that he would never be able to grasp the difference in proportions of a single atom compared to a single universe and for a while he wasn’t able to think of much else.
The constellations in the sky had shifted but he did not know how much time had past when he realized that he had come to a point in the night that would define how he viewed everything for the rest of his life. He had stopped dwelling on sizes and realized that nothing was neither infinitely massive nor infinitely small. It was all relative. “We may feel as if the universe is infinitely large but if a multiverse really does exist then our universe may not be so large in comparison to the others. It could be a big one, perhaps a very small one, or maybe just an average sized one”, but no matter how hard he thought about it he would never know. It was in these passing moments on earth that he began applying relative size to all things and then he had an even greater, much more bizarre epiphany.
He thought that if you allowed for an individual atom to represent its own “solar system” and then you grouped that atom with other atoms that represent their own “solar systems” and you build from the unity of those atoms one average human cell you would have more atoms making up that one cell than there are stars with actual solar systems making up the Milky Way Galaxy. It occurred to him that if you looked at the cell’s massive size relative to a single atom that was a fundamental part of the makeup of that cell then the cell was, in fact, somewhat proportional to the size of our unified galaxy and the atoms were comparable in size to that of our solar system. Then he extended his thoughts further by applying the unity of those cells into the individual organism. There are about as many cells in the average human body as there are atoms in the individual cell, and with this thought he put his mind upon the point: He was a galaxy of cells and those cells were all made up of galaxies of atoms. He was, in his own right, an atomic universe. But if he was a universe of atoms but only a galaxy of cells was he in turn part of an inescapably bigger picture? Did he belonged to the unified biosphere of the planet earth? He thought that he must, and that if one looked at things in the right way then the biosphere of earth was indeed it’s own singular organism and that all the living beings on the planet were the cells that made it up.
These thoughts, as foreign as they might have been earlier in the night, were quickly becoming his natural views but he kept wondering how did he matter at all if he would live and die without any great effect upon the universe? An atom within the cell would be bound away at some point by other atoms and the cell would live on seemingly unaffected. A cell would live and die and the organism would live on seemingly unaffected. An organism’s life would end and the life of planet earth continued to live on basically unaffected. He surmised that a planet could be destroyed and the solar system would continue to thrive for the most part unhindered, and he knew that science could see solar systems regularly being created and destroyed and the Milky Way Galaxy continued to move on mostly unaffected. Entire galaxies were birthing and dying and the universe was existing, as far as he could tell, unaffected. Cells were massive to atoms, organisms were massive to cells, planets were massive to organisms, solar systems were massive to planets, galaxies were massive to solar systems, universes were massive to galaxies, the multiverse was massive to universes. All things were infinitely massive or infinitely small based upon the relativity of what they were compared to; and not only did he fit somewhere into the unification of it all, but it required his existence for him to be able to perceive of it. It was all one big Russian nesting doll and he was one of them.
He had spent his entire academic career pursuing chemistry and biology in order to become a physician because he had felt that he could do the most good during his lifetime by helping treat those who could not help themselves. Now that he was objectively looking at the biosphere as being a planetary organism with all the organisms acting as cells he now saw humanity for what it had evolved into. Humanity’s population had reached the astronomical figure of more than seven billion individuals over the course of the past twenty thousand years, but at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution the population of man totalled only a billion people--it had taken two hundred years or just one percent of human history to septuple it’s population. He felt like mankind considered itself to be at the pinnacle of its intellectual advancement and yet the world ecology had reached its most desperate point as the collateral damage of the rise of human technology and innovation. He saw humanity as a cellular organism that was dividing out of control and was raping all the resources of life on the planet in order to maintain its exponential growth pattern. He realized in that moment that there must be some kind of correlation between the way mankind’s population had exploded on the planet and the way the population of cancer cells exploded within the body of a metastasized organism.
He was very cold now as he felt a strange sleepiness coming over him and his body forced him to sit down. The frosted weeds crunched as he came closer to the earth and his body heat quickly caused the melting ice to dampen his blue jeans. The moon had gotten very low in the western sky and soon full darkness would descend on the land and the stars would shine their brightest from above. He was overwhelmed and tired but the gears of his mind whirled on. He thought about the way he lead his life and he realized the impact of his existence. He was disgusted by how he had lived in a state of complete ignorance. He had been totally unaware of his position within the confines of his environment, but he felt penitent by his awakening. As sleepy as he had quickly become he was wide awake with the awareness of who he had been and who he was in the grand scheme of things. He was now the unassuming observer of the entropy of the universe. As he laid down in the frozen field he knew nothing for certain anymore and he could not understand how he had ever been sure of anything at all, and yet he felt more wise now knowing nothing than he had in his entire life. Above him the heavenly constellations danced across the span of sky and below him the planet spun on as it had for eons. Somewhere in between heaven and earth, space and time he laid there totally absorbed in the visceral feeling of infinity.