I felt awe, inspiration, reverence, humility. Not from a religious ritual, holy book, or spiritual sage -- from the first episode I've watched of a BBC science program, "Wonders of the Universe."
Youthful-looking physicist Brian Cox explained in Children of the Stars how the same 92 naturally occurring elements are found everywhere in the universe. So what we are, the universe is.
I've heard this before, many times.
But the way Cox put it seemed new and fresh. In the clip below he says that the building blocks of the universe -- protons and neutrons -- formed within the first few seconds after the big bang (which banged away 13.7 billion years ago).
Everything that's happened since has been a rearranging of those building blocks into increasingly complex structures, one of which is the human brain that now has achieved a good understanding of how it came to be able to understand.
Wow. Think about it. Marvel about it.
You, me, everything and everybody on Earth, the entirety of 100 billion galaxies each containing hundreds of billions of stars -- all of this came into being some 14 billion years ago.
The protons and neutrons in the nucleus of the atoms we're made of have been around that long. The atoms themselves are less old. The heavy elements (heavier than hydrogen and helium) are younger still, since they couldn't be formed until stars collapsed in upon themselves, forming additional elements through nuclear fusion.
BIgger the star, the more dramatic is the fusion process. The heaviest elements, like gold, are formed in super nova explosions where the temperature briefly reaches 100 billion degrees before the star dies in an amazingly powerful fashion.
Have a look at how Cox explains this.
I don't like the idea of dying. Yet as I watched Children of the Stars I felt more at peace about the notion of death. I saw that if stars hadn't died, Earth never would have formed. Nor would we humans exist.
Death and life are inseparable. Religions offer the promise of everlasting life, but this isn't the reality of the universe. Science can't disprove the hypothesis of eternal existence in some heavenly realm, yet neither is there any demonstrable evidence of this.
What we know, with near scientific certainty, are the truths presented by Brian Cox. We are made of stardust, heavy elements formed by exploding stars over the 14 billion year old age of the universe.
If there is a God, this is how God created us: as free-floating protons and neutrons which evolved over an immense span of time via the laws of nature into us Homo sapiens.
In a review of "Wonders of the Universe" I learned about what Cox says in another episode:
"Life as we know it," Professor Cox explained at one point, "is only possible for one thousandth of a billion billion billionth, billion billion billionth, billion billion billionth of a percent" of the lifespan of the universe. And of that barely conceivable fraction, a human life occupies only a tiny space.
Well, here we are. Amazingly. Yet also, utterly predictably.
The universe is what it is. We can't say about the universe as a whole, "what are the chances..." The chance is 100% that human beings came to occupy the planet we call Earth during the astoundingly small percentage of the lifespan of the universe that Cox says is suitable for life as we know it.
This was perhaps the strongest emotion I felt after watching Children of the Stars. I wasn't grateful to a personal (or even impersonal) god, because I don't believe in the existence of such an entity.
Rather, I was filled with gratitude that out of all of the countless heavy element atoms in the cosmos, a bunch had come together into a form I call "me" that possessed the ability to be conscious.
Religions offer up unreasonable expectations, albeit appealing. Sure, I'd like to live forever. If the essence of my being was "eternal soul," "cosmic consciousness," or such, supposedly this could happen.
But reality teaches otherwise. As Cox explained, it's much more likely that the atoms which comprise my body will become part of other entities in the universe after I die. My consciousness will end when my brain does.
Bob, my brother-in-law, was a practical, mechanical, scientifically-minded person. We didn't talk philosophy a lot. Once though, he shared what he thought would happen after he died.
"I think that my atoms will go back into the universe," he told me. Pretty damn simple.
At the time, I was heavy into my true believing phase. I wanted to believe that my soul would survive my bodily death, that my consciousness not only would persist into an afterlife but expand.
Now, I've come to better appreciate the wisdom of Bob's reality-based view of life and death. It's better to see things as they are, not as we would wish them to be. And what we are is the universe. There's no difference between us and the cosmos. We are stardust; stardust is us.
If it turns out that I'm more than this, my post-death experience will be a lot more interesting than I expect (after all, anything is more than zero). If not, I'm grateful that I live in an era when modern science can be explained so wonderfully by people like Brian Cox.
There are many wonders of the universe. Foremost, perhaps, is our ability to wonder at the wonders.