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Don't Panic

Updated: Mar 25

"Cosmic Cliffs" in the Carina Nebula. Image taken by the James Webb Telescope 2022. RELEASE: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI. Public Domain.

“I like the cover,” he said. “Don’t Panic. It’s the first helpful or intelligible thing anybody’s said to me all day.” Douglas Adams, A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

The 2022 Nobel Prize for Physics was just awarded to three physicists (Alain Aspect, John F. Clauser, and Anton Zeilinger) who worked independently over decades to reach a breakthrough in understanding quantum entanglement. If you are not a physicist (and I really can’t express emphatically enough how much I myself am not a physicist), the extremely simplified gist of their discovery is this: Two separate particles can act identically, even when they’re extremely far apart—disproving what Einstein dismissed as “spooky action at a distance.” We’re just not sure how they do it, why they do it, what it means, or how it might be useful.

In an interview with the American Institute of Physics following the announcement of his win, Dr. Clauser said, “I confess even to this day that I still don’t understand quantum mechanics, and I’m not even sure I really know how to use it all that well. And a lot of this has to do with the fact that I still don’t understand it.”

There’s something about a Nobel Prize-winning physicist saying “I don’t understand” that makes my heart skip: with joy for the curiosity and humility necessary for such perception-altering discoveries, and with deep unease, because the sum of human knowledge is the flicker of a matchstick in a cold, perhaps infinite, darkness. 

But we humans, being clever little creatures, have a remedy for the terror of the unknown: stories. In Joseph Campbell’s collection of essays Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor, he offers a reason as to why myth is comforting: 

Myth makes a connection between our waking consciousness and the mystery of the universe. It gives us a map or picture of the universe and allows us to see ourselves in relationship to nature, as when we speak of Father Sky and Mother Earth. It supports and validates a certain social and moral order. The Ten Commandments being given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai is an example of this. Lastly, it helps us pass through and deal with the various stages of life from birth to death.

Story—myth, metaphor—isn’t about telling a happier story to make us forget our fear, but about putting our fear in greater context. It’s a comfort to know we’re connected to those who came before, and those who will be here when we’re gone. It isn’t about solving, but being at peace with the unsolved. 

Myth is often misused, though, by being taken literally. Campbell cautions, “One way to deprive yourself of a religious experience is indeed to expect it. Another is to have a name for it before you have the experience.” [12]

Science fiction author and humorist Douglas Adams identified himself as a “radical atheist,” and dedicated the non-writing portion of his life to environmentalism. Adams is best known for his book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the many stories he wrote before his untimely death at age 49 are an ode to the absurdity of “life, the universe, and everything.” He remains, to me, the perfect example of someone who was deeply curious yet cheerfully embraced the unknown. He saw that life is finite, and yet dedicated so much of his own to the celebration and preservation of our shared home—including its many mysteries.

A posthumous collection of Adams’s essays called The Salmon of Doubt includes his gleeful summary of the situation: “The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be.”

Campbell expands on this idea of transcendence in Thou Art That’s penultimate chapter, Question Period (which is our gift this month, so you can download it for free until the end of October). He has a few ideas on how someone might be able to understand transcendence—to be clear, not that which transcends, since that is by definition ineffable, but the concept of transcendence. “For a start, I would say, study poetry. Learn how to read a poem.” [92] 

Making our way through a brief existence within a long eternity is, at baseline, absurd. Three physicists who worked independently, passing research forward from one to the next over decades to reach a Nobel Prize, still have more questions than answers. Humanity’s knowledge of our existence is incremental this way. Looking at the whole picture can be dizzying—but what is the “whole,” anyway? Campbell quotes another physicist, Erwin Schrödinger, in saying, 

“...this life of yours is not merely a piece of the entire existence, but is, in a certain sense the whole; only the whole is not so constituted that it can be surveyed in one simple glance. This… is what the Brahmins express in that sacred, mystic formula that is yet really so simple and so clear: Tat tvam asi, that is you.” [13]



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