Ocean waves break upon the jagged rocks of the Oregon Coast rhythmically as the Earth sighs. The sun, barely poking above the distant watery horizon, beckons on a new world: the night sky. When our own star, Sol, makes it’s journey across the other half of Earth, the Universe is painted upon the black canvas that is the night. Behind the veil of speckled constellations is a vastness that stretches so far, our human minds cannot begin to truly comprehend it. As the darkness creeps into every nook and cranny of the coast, I stand upon a cliff side, the waves of light cast from stars billions of lightyears away washes over me.
I consider myself to be an atheist agnostic. I don’t believe in souls or spirits. I’m scientifically minded, and don’t ever recall ever really having a religious experience. However, each time I step out under the night sky, I feel a sense of connectedness that I think religious people mean when they say they feel the divine spirit. Each blip of light in the sky seems to be calling out to me. Whether it is a distant star, a nearby planet, or our own space stations whizzing by, I feel a powerful connection to not only the universe we live in, but each and every human that came to exist in this world.
It wasn’t always like this for me. There was a time for me when the night sky was just a reminder to wind down and go to bed. It almost seems like a different life — A life before 13.7 billion light years had meaning and before I understood the periodic table of elements. A life before Maxwell and Faraday’s laws of electromagnetism resonated inside me. Through my education, a scientific baptism if you will, my world transformed from my hometown into a 93 billion light-year observable expanse counting in at just under 14 billion years old.
I was never good at math. I understand the importance of math in everyday life and it’s application in complex scenarios. What took me years to realize is that math is the language of the Universe. Making the connection, I felt the world around me peeling away, exposing the inner workings. Heat became a physical phenomenon rather than a feeling. In my mind, I see the uncountable number of vibrating molecules. Simple notions of our world became beautifully complex in ways I have yet to understand. With so many questions swirling throughout my mind, I could feel the Universe around me growing. It’s vast uncaring chasms spanning billions of lightyears screamed at me, waking me up.
It changed me.
Looking up at the night sky has become a religious practice in some sense for me, as if to remind myself of the painfully beautiful world we live in. Like original sin from Judeo-Christian religions, humans came to exist with a burden that is carried in each and every one of us. But for me, the burden isn’t sin but time and the mind. The night sky has become, for me, the active realization that I will not be here forever, and I will not have the pleasure of knowing what is to come. The light sprinkling over me on that Oregon cliffside has travelled for billions of years, only to fizzle away upon my brief and seemingly insignificant existence. The simple act of looking at a distant star is an existential reminder that I am mortal, and I will never have the satisfaction of completely understanding our beautiful universe. This morbid reality becomes the cornerstone of my life.
The night sky gives me the answer to the question, “Why am I here?”
And somewhere deep, beyond the veil of galaxies and stardust, as if calling out and making a statement, it answers.
But then I think harder, and I see the question itself doesn’t even matter. Chemistry has taught us that the elements in our universe have come from the deaths of stars. My life, my being, my physical body, is the result of a star exploding billions upon billions of years ago. Suddenly, being alive nearly answers the question. In a universe so large, and so filled with lifeless mass, being alive is enough.
With the Universe still screaming at me, I understand why I should be so honored to even hear it. I am the universe experiencing itself. My physical body is not special. The chemicals needed to create my body are commonplace. However from what we know, the cognitive abstraction which my body sustains is uncommon to the entire Universe. The screams, while ghastly and infinite, become an inspirational tune reminding me of my complex origins and the precious gift of thought.
With no light pollution, and a clear sky, the night on the Oregon coast brought forth a beautifully bright night sky where millions of stars shined, unhindered. Bathing in the billion year old light, I think how magnificent it is that I can actually look up at the Universe and attempt to appreciate it’s complexity. Life is a continuous search for more answers. However, the night sky shows me why each and every human is truly amazing, and why being alive is an absolute privilege. While the night sky continues to be decoded by brilliant scientists, I will at least one day be able to point up at the night sky and say to my child, “Look honey, that’s us. Just slightly rearranged.”
Into The Depths
This was a personal written piece I created for one of my classes at the University of Oregon.