A Month of Tuesdays
February seems interminable in good years, this year I'm in need of a full deep dive into theoretical physics to get me through.
In 6th grade we were assigned to give a presentation on a famous person, a person of influence. I chose Albert Einstein.
It was the first time I gave a presentation. The first time I “taught a lesson.” And the lesson I taught my fellow eleven year olds was about the theory of relativity. I stood at the black board with my notecards in one hand, a piece of chalk in the other. I wrote E= mc(2). I drew a picture of a rocket ship circling the earth. I remember it being a rush similar to the one I would feel the first time I made people laugh from the stage. This rush though, was about something else.
It was about something that clicked in me, a sort of understanding of the material that came from having to teach it. Somehow the act of learning with the intention of teaching made everything clearer to me. It crystallized abstract ideas, so that when I got up to the black board to talk about time and space and the speed of light, in my young mind it made sense, not just to me but (I thought) to my classmates as well.
I love being a teacher, but I gotta say, it’s hard to teach the same subject for twenty plus years. I hope I’ve figured out better, more efficient and engaging ways to teach the same things, and I certainly try to learn new skills and concepts to include - but all the same, I’m kinda tired. Dare I say “bored.”
This is why the last five years studying theology, spirituality and wellness has felt like the rush of my novice attempt at the black board forty years ago. This has made me remember that more than an actor, I’m a teacher. This has also made me realize that I’ve placed definitions around myself that have kept me in a bit of a creative rut. This newsletter is part of my attempt to climb out of that rut. It is my attempt at teaching the theory of relativity to eleven year olds. I’m clearly as unworthy of the attempt now to teach theology, spirituality and wellness as I was then to teach Einstein. So I thank you, my fellow classmates, for indulging me. I hope I have a tiny bit to offer.
In what ways have you limited yourself based on the titles you’ve defined yourself by?
What things do you remember exciting you as a child?
Are you still excited by those things?
What would it take for you to reclaim those parts of yourself?
A Broadening Perspective:
Our worlds are small right now. A few rooms wide and a grocery store, maybe. Gone are the porch visits and fire pits during 0 degree weather. So when an article popped up for me a few days ago on Alan Lightman’s new book on the concept of Infinity, it seemed somehow hopeful. The idea that our space and time are larger than this space and time that we now occupy is comforting. If you are a fan of Lightman’s award winning 1992 novel Einstein’s Dreams check out the Atlantic article that excerpts his new book, Probable Impossibilities: Musings on Beginnings and Ending.
I was hopeful that the concept of vast infinitude would free me a bit from the walls closing in from my not too well insulated house. But the excerpt starts with a reference to Jorge Luis Borges’ story The Book of Sand. A story about a Bible pedlar who sells a mysterious book said to neither have a beginning nor an end. “Study the page well,” the bookseller says, “you will never see it again.” The story tells of troubling confines and chaos of endlessness. This resonates with my current reality. I’m sure you can relate.
Lightman goes on to say though that “one of the intriguing properties of infinity is that you can’t get there from here. Infinity is not simply more and more of the finite. It seems to be of a completely different nature, although pieces of it may appear finite, such as large numbers or large volumes of space. Infinity is a thing unto itself.” I let out an audible sigh as I read this. I’m comfortable in this place of mystery.
God is everywhere, and in all things, inasmuch as He is boundless and infinite. - Thomas Aquinas
Then Lightman ventures into really mysterious territory. He tells the story of the Guth-Linde Inflation Theory which posits in Guth’s original theory that at the time of the Big Bang and “in a tiny fraction of a second, a region of space smaller than an atom ‘inflated’ to a size large enough to encompass all the matter and energy we can see today.” Linde’s theory takes this further to “propose that our universe is necessarily one of a vast number of universes, each of which is constantly and randomly spawning new universes in an unending chain of cosmic creation, extending into the future for eternity.”
I’m not sure but I think that all good scientists are good story tellers and Linde, and here Lightman, certainly are telling a good story. A story of a redefined “universe” that branches off like the ancient Babylonian “Map of the World.” “Both,” Lightman says, “requiring leaps of imagination.” The Babylonian map, however, is static and Linde’s universe is an ever evolving, self-spawning, dynamic dance.
“I do not feel unlimited looking at Linde’s map. Instead, I feel small and insignificant, like the Bible peddler, who says that if space is infinite, we are nowhere in space, nowhere in time. How can anything we do be of consequence when we are nowhere in space, nowhere in time, when our brief lives are lived out on one small planet, itself one of zillions of planets in a universe that might be infinite in size, and our entire universe simply one bulb in Linde’s thick hedge of universes? On the other hand, there might be something majestic in being a part, even a tiny part, of this unfathomable chain of being, this infinitude of existence. We pass away, our sun will burn out, our universe might become a dark and lifeless void a hundred billion years from now—but, according to Linde, other universes are constantly being born, some surely with life, renewing something precious that cannot be named.”
I finished reading the chapter and thought, “There’s nothing better to take us out of the mundane, concrete reality of covid life than theoretical physics!” A few minutes later as I was scrolling through Instagram I saw that Peter Enns was of the same mindset. He posted that he was reading Brian Greene’s 2003 book The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time and the Texture of Reality. I can’t find the post now but found that he’s been on a physics kick thanks to Ilia Delio’s recommendation for books.
I looked up The Fabric of the Cosmos and found that there is a four part Nova series hosted by Greene based on his book. Done. Loved it and highly recommend.
The beautiful synchronicity of God’s universe is that God doesn’t just leave us connecting a few dots, but is gratuitous with synapses and synthesis - to the edge of hilarity at times. I thought I was done reading about quantum physics and watching the effects of black holes, but then it was my brother’s birthday and he suggested we watch a movie “in synch” and text as we watched to simulate us actually being together.
At first he suggested we watch The End of the Tour, a 2015 film starring Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace the deeply talented and troubled author of the postmodern tome, Infinite Jest. Jest, like theoretical physics, explores time and space in non-linear ways and like The Book of Sand is a book of enormous length, though despite the title not actually infinite.
I, however, begged off watching this film as I thought it much too depressing for the blizzard and darkness we were experiencing that night. “No problem,” Trip said, “how about this new one on Amazon, The Map of Tiny Perfect Things?”
A sweet movie in the rom-com sci-fi genre of Groundhog Day, this movie plunged me right back into my physics wormhole. I won’t give it away, but the smart story aimed at teenagers but interesting enough for adults, focused on two young people both caught in a temporal anomaly that repeated the same day over and over. The satisfaction of this movie, unlike Groundhog Day, is that we eventually learn why these two are stuck. Bill Murray’s character, Phil Connors, is just narcissistic but beyond that it’s unknown how or why he’s caught in this Sisyphean trap.
The journey of young Mark and Margaret though take on both theoretical physics and the 4th dimension as well as metaphysics and the dimensionality of a perfect, pure moment. What defines these perfect, pure moments? It is the joy of children stringing lights for their tree house, the unaware timing of angel wings on a man waiting for a bus, the hidden musical talent of a janitor at a piano store. The world is no longer just the physical interaction of time and space and mass and energy but also the emotional and spiritual energy of the people that inhabit it. As Mark and Margaret learn from each other and even from the day they know so well, they begin to notice the rule of the observer effect. They think they’ve been aware this whole time and everyone around them has been asleep, but realize that it actually they who have been asleep and once they really start seeing the world, observing it and actually interacting with it, they have the power to make changes. It is a beautiful parable of the soul.
Are we done yet God? Have I been thinking about the nature of the universe enough during this claustrophobically blizzard-cold weekend? I realize there is a multi-verse of existence out there and my little self stuck in this little house is infinitesimally small…. but I also realize that within that word meaning “extremely small, approaching zero” is the same root for the word infinite. I am both. We are both. Like Lightman says, “there might be something majestic in being a part, even a tiny part, of this unfathomable chain of being, this infinitude of existence.”
Within that majesty we can claim the infinite at the same time as the infinitesimal.
I’m excited to read more about Linde when I buy Lightman’s book. Linde, like me, it seems, struggled with definitions of himself.
“At the beginning, I was like a young kid, making discoveries, now I feel a deep responsibility. … I would hate to die just being a physicist. I enjoy photography. That allows me to feel another part of my brain. There is something beyond physics that is not measurable … Photography is my art. You need to have a first priority and then a second priority. When I was 60, someone gave me a camera. With a camera, you can produce beauty.. I am producing images that make my heart sing—both my photographs and the computer graphics illustrating inflation. Without the part of my mind beyond physics, I would be unable to create the computer graphics of cosmology.”
What allows you to feel a different part of your brain?
What is your first and what is your second priority?
Be on the lookout for people giving you cameras and inviting you to movies and posts popping up on Instagram. Look for the connections that God is always putting before you to show you the vast infinitude that lays out before us, even when we feel stuck in a temporal anomaly.