Does life ever seem absolutely weird to you? It does to me. Often. I’ve got some distinguished company in this regard: George Will, who wrote a great piece in Newsweek called “The Oddness of Everything.”
Will shares a bunch of strange facts about the universe culled from Bill Bryson’s book, “A Short History of Nearly Everything.” Now, facts aren’t really “strange,” “odd,” or “weird.” They’re simply facts.
But when it comes to facts about the basics of life, time, space, and the universe, human cognition blows a fuse. Our brains can’t handle that much reality.
There’s an awful lot of mystery remaining in the cosmos, no doubt. Yet Will shows that even what has been revealed is deeply mysterious and mind-blowing, leaving aside all that we have no clue about.
For example: “If all the stars in the universe were only the size of the head of a pin, they still would fill Miami’s Orange Bowl to overflowing more than 3 billion times.”
Suddenly I feel very, very insignificant. Which is how I should feel.
Will also points out that the body of every person has about 10 thousand trillion cells. We’re made of trillions of trillions of atoms, so he says that lots of atoms—perhaps billions—in each of us have been recycled from Beethoven. And Jesus. Indeed, everyone who has ever lived.
Suddenly I feel very, very significant. Which is how I should feel.
For the mystery of life and the cosmos is that we’re simultaneously so nearly nothing and so nearly everything. We’ve learned that our sun is one of some 400 billion stars in the Milky Way, which is one of some 140 billion galaxies in the universe. We’re nothing.
And what is responsible for this learning? Human consciousness, which somehow is able to reach out and touch the edges of the deepest mysteries of existence. Who knows? Take a single step over that edge and we may very well find out that We’re everything.
It’s the oddness of all this that Will eloquently speaks about. We’re poking around the periphery of “this,” whatever the heck it is, and the more we learn about it, the more we realize that it’s way freaking beyond our capacity to grok.
The scientific advances in understanding cited in Will’s essay should make humankind deeply humble. Deeply uncertain. Deeply cognizant of how much remains to be learned about who we are, how we came to be, and where we’re headed.
“Wow!” “Oh my god!” “What the _____!?” To my mind, expressions like these are the only truly honest religious utterances. Confronted with the fundamental mysterious oddity of creation, what else can we say?
I liked how Will ended his essay:
The greatest threat to civility—and ultimately to civilization—is an excess of certitude. The world is much menaced just now by people who think that the world and their duties in it are clear and simple. They are certain that they know what—who—created the universe and what this creator wants them to do to make our little speck in the universe perfect, even if extreme measures—even violence—are required.
America is currently awash in an unpleasant surplus of clanging, clashing certitudes. That is why there is a rhetorical bitterness absurdly disproportionate to our real differences. It has been well said that the spirit of liberty is the spirit of not being too sure that you are right. One way to immunize ourselves against misplaced certitude is to contemplate—even to savor—the unfathomable strangeness of everything, including ourselves.