Tuesday, May 6, 2014

We'll Always Have A Galaxy

Quarks come in different flavours:
"up", "down", "strange" and "charmed".
(don't ask me why!)
Here is a representation of a proton
made up of two ups and one down.
Some of these things I know:

I know that I am made up more of empty space than of actual matter. I share fundamental coding with sea cucumbers and jaguars. My inner harmonies were formed over 13 billion years ago in an explosion that was so hot and vicious and unfathomable in energy that its shadow is still detectable across everything that is, was, and will be. None other than the poet e.e. cummings used Hubble's law of the expanding universe as a metaphor for the power of love when he wrote, "and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart / I carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)". When I am gone the smallest known bits my constituent parts (which my learned kin have variously called quarks and leptons, among others) shall be recycled in many, many, different configurations and permutations.

I cannot describe or codify to you exactly what a quark is but I do love the sound of its name, but I know that without them we wouldn't have atoms, without which there wouldn't be molecules, without which there wouldn't be nucleotides or proteins or cells to make up you, me and Dolly Parton. Speaking of cells, in every cell that constitutes my body are slave bacteria with their own independent coils of DNA, without whom I would literally be powerless. Mitochondria, if you didn't know already, are pretty much why multicellular life exists today, and their study has spawned some of the sexiest discoveries in the history of science. For those of you who'd like to undergo a beautiful mind-bending odyssey about how mitochondria shaped life (and death) as we know it today, I cannot recommend Nick Lane's Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life highly enough.

Tracking back even further, way before cells even existed, we have carbon. What we regard today as life started as a little sideshow because of this certain element 's tendency to hate being alone and want to hold hands with as many of its mates as possible. Yet, in its native form, we could disregard the sixth element on the Periodic Table as mere subway soot, use it to draw a picture with a pencil (if only I could draw) or, with true Saffer style, use as little cakes of charcoal to burn flesh freshly hunted from the great plains of Woolworths. This ritual, of course, ritually practiced order to bond with fellow males while consuming liquids critically laden with a certain, highly prized 9-membered molecule that contains two of these gregarious atoms at its core.

Electron micrograph of a mitochondrion -
remnants of ancient bacteria that eukaryotic organisms
such as ourselves depend upon to burn glucose to form energy.
Perhaps most astonishingly, I am able to transmit these all these thoughts to another conscious being (possibly one day someone not even of my own species) by deciding to record them in a mutually agreed on, decipherable external code. I'm of course talking about written text; language. One of thousands that exist on the planet. Even more astounding: this is happening virtually, as my fingers press keys on a board, which transmute pressure into electricity and then wireless undulations that are picked up by the Bluetooth magician in my desktop and then somehow binary code in a processor. Never mind the subsequent dance to virtual memory and then pixels doing conga lines across a screen (and that happening only when, and if, they pick up instructions because YOU decided to follow a series of links in a frighteningly incestuous nexus of electronic relays we call the Internet). I am not the first to marvel at all of this, nor the most eloquent in attempting to describe it, but I do it because I... I want to. I, for some bizarre, yet beautiful reason, need to, on this random night when I can't seem to sleep, a process that is vitally important for the functioning of those little enslaved bacteria.

So, on the one hand, there are millions (billions? I get order of magnitude fatigue easily) of universes inside me, and yet I am just one of 7 billion or so hominids on a single blue planet orbiting an apparently average-sized yellow star some fifteen thousand light years from a galactic core that may or may not contain a black hole. (I hope it does, because, awesome.) The simultaneous insignificance yet profound mysticism of Earth's location is much more beautifully set out in the opening lines of Douglas Adams's "The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy", which I refer you to immediately if you haven't read it. Like the Lord of the Rings, I divide people (without prejudice) into those Who Have Read It and Those Who Still Need To. (I Still Need To Read LOTR, I offer up to you, as a gesture of my own fallability.)
The galactic sprawl seen in time lapse. Or, awesome.

I turn here, as I often do, from thoughts microscopic to macroscopic. Long after I am just an afterthought of a burst radiation, my (my own! your own! our own!) galaxy will collide with its neighbour Andromeda. After whatever galactic insurance claims have been settled, they'll form a new, massive, probably ellipsoid supergalaxy, hanging out casually with another fifty-odd or so regular commuters in a ten-million light-year or so smudge of the Universe we have decided to call, in a spectacular moment of scientific banality, the Local Group. Come on, people.

Maybe in a thousand years time "Local Group" will have evolved into some pretty word like "lykaalgrwwp" and be as fundamental to the vocabulary of our beloved Lingua Anglica as the words "sun" and "moon" but really? Couldn't we rename it to something cooler? I mean, we have "The Milky Way" which is both endearing and whimsical for our galaxy. Even the word "galaxy" comes from the Greek word for milk. And yes, in case you've been living inside a box all your life, on a really really dark night the great spiral arm we perpetually look out on really does look like a river of milk.

We have named planets after gods and goddesses and stars after giants and nymphs and great men and women. But our home county in the Universe as it were deserves a better moniker, I think. It doesn't have to be majestic (we already have majestic, for example, we are located on the Orion Arm of the Milky Way. Something civic like Galaxis Prime would be a start. We could go retro-artsy, say Cthulhu Manor. Or self-deferential nerdy, as in Nearscape (see what I did there). Or maybe Nermal even. Even "The Smudge" would do. But please, please, please do not call my local cluster of galaxies simply The Local Group. I propose a naming competition, the winner of which would win a trip to the Total Perspective Vortex in Adams's book for being so impish as to name a corner of the infinite. But naming things is a big part of what makes us human.

In case you were lost, here you are.
Whimsicality aside... actually, wait. Stop right there. I like to think that the Universe is not cruel and random; it is rather whimsical. This is a fairy-tale construction on my part, of course, to deal with the Primal Terror that we might be Alone (or, in the other variant, we are Not Alone and thus the necessary subplots of (a) we are either Too Utterly Insignificant To Be Noticed or (b) indeed Being Watched By Something (or Things) Which (i) May Or (ii) May Not Be Benign. Note to self, all three form great bases for stories and religious movements).

 So to rephrase: Whimsicality by my side, I'm  grateful to be part of Awesome Sprawl that I like to call the mess of things we find ourselves in. Not just our daily scurrying across bits of the planet's crust, but the nested movements within movements of moons and planets and stars and galaxies (and Smudges) move me profoundly. By that I don't just mean  in the physical break-neck and possibly nausea-inducing sense if you think of the mathematics of all that compounded velocity. It moves my soul, a concept something which numbers —as yet perhaps— cannot parse satisfactorily, I'll leave it to you to interpret that dangerous S-word as piously or deconstructivist as you like. At 37 years, I can only speak of an oceanic sense of belonging, a craning up of my neck to something so big, so, so big it has the paradoxical effect of making me feel needed and wanted.

I have, perhaps, a sense of cosmic separation anxiety, and this might simply be an extended case of nostalgia and sodade borne out of listening to the slow movement of Dvorak's 9th too many times when I was delirious with malaria once when I was 17. Do not underestimate the morphine-like effects of things written in D-flat major.

The icing on the celestial cake is, of course, I happen to live with a particularly wonderful and mostly sparkly pink bundle of molecules called a wife to
Leia: "I love you". Han: "I know." (They'll Always Have Endor) 
share this cosmic journey with, and who in her red-haired magnanimousness is content to let my clatter my thoughts into The Mistress (my iMac, Lydia... who was previously called Scarlett... long story...) for later editing and your hopefully pleasant consumption.

At the core of this, then (at the heart of the heart of the root of the root of the bud of the bud of the tree of e.e. cummingsian life) is this, to set down this:

You are not alone.

You have a galaxy.

You have a local group of galaxies.

"We'll always have Paris... no, wait, the Solar System, no wait, The Milky Way..."
Let's just all agree on a cool name for our neighborhood perhaps? And maybe we can form a I heart my hood movement, even a Neighborhood Watch for those of you who want to use Hubble as a pair of snooping binoculars. Nosy ladies with poodles and Far Side glasses enquire within, vacancies available. Must be able to bake cookies for visitors from other parts of the Universe.

Shouldn't we all feel the need to take part in a Galactic Pride march or something? At least planetary pride would be a start. Because, you know, wormholes. Because shifting focus and Big Pictures and all that. Because Sense of Belonging and End of War and other Aquarian Ideals I get befuddled with.

Because, where we are, and how we are moving through it, is frustratingly difficult to explain and yet astonishingly simple to experience, and quite simply, just beautiful.

We are that.

We'll Always Have A Galaxy. (For now, but that now is sufficiently, deliciously long enough for me.)