Sunday Thoughts - Remnants of an Old World Part 1:
How do we tell when a building is old? I
have spent the last few days in old Spanish towns built during Midieval
times; towns surrounded by thick walls within which lie huge castles
where once sat the Kings of old upon their thrones. Towns that were
constructed centuries upon centuries ago to ward away the barbarians.
And they are certainly showing their age.
The once polished wooden walls with their brilliant silver handles
and studs have now rusted, and their sheen has vanished; TĄthe colors of
the intricately embroidered tapestries adorning the throne rooms have
dulled; the moats have all run dry and small tendrils of foliage creep
their way into the cracks of what was once an imprenetrable fortress
Some structures lay simply in ruins, naught but piles of rocks with
only a mere semblance of their previous form. But that is all a matter
of time. Upon this planet of ours, nothing is still, regardless of how
much so it may appear to be. Structures built today will crumble and
fade in a comparative blink of an eye. From the moment is pulled up
from its place of rest and relocated somewhere else, the Earth begins
its work to bring it back into its clutches, along with anything that it
may well be newly attatched to. Call it entropy, call it decay, call
it what you will, it is the force of nature that works every moment to
return what has been taken from it.
And it is a powerful force indeed. We have professions dedicated to
keeping this force at bay. It is why we have caretakers and maintenance
crews and even simple gardeners to keep out the weeds. To leave
something unattended is to leave it at the mercy of the Earth. Our
strongest buildings can be slowly taken apart by the seemingly gentle
force of a tree looking to take root in the ground, and once we are not
there to look after what we have made, it shall be reclaimed by the
When we look bac, at the relics left by civilizations past we see
this process at work. We see our thousand-year-old structures still
standing and think ourselves invincible. But that time is nothing on a
geological scale. Or a cosmic scale. And that which is left pales in
comparison to that which was; I imagine the original inhabitants of
these places would be ashamed of how much their immortal societies have
It makes you wonder. What will our world look like in a hundred
years after we're gone? And we will go. We like to think of ourselves
as everlasting, prepared for anything the Earth can throw at us. But as
recent years have shown, we still have a long ways to go; where the
Earth's natural processes take hundreds or thousands of years to erode
out architecture, a strong hurricane, earthquake, volcano or tsunami can
dismantle our cities in mere seconds and wash our history all away. We
will not live forevermore. So what will be left of us a hundred years
after we're gone? How about a thousand years? And how long until our
societies have decayed to the point that we ourselves wouldn't even
Because despite all of the campaigns that we run, and all of the
green policies we pass, one thing remains true. And it remains as true
now as it was true centuries and millenia ago. As it is true every day
of the week.
I've often been asked by a variety of
people why I have chosen to study science, namely Astrophysics, of all
things. It is a difficult question to answer truthfully, as the idea is
not simple to explain in casual conversation. However, in an attempt
to figure this out for myself on a flight yesterday, I came up with an
analogy which explains all the facets of science and what it means to
study it to a tee.
Imagine a Jigsaw puzzle. This puzzle is unlike any other that has
ever existed, if only in the sense that it is being built to discover
what the picture on the box is. Mankind has been building this puzzle
since its inception onto the Earth, and it is difficult to say with any
sort of certainty anything of its progress except that we have more of
the picture now than we did then. The puzzle, from what we have
gathered so far, is massive, with what parts we have of the frame
measuring thousands of miles in each direction and pieces as small as
coins. And we don't even know where all the pieces are.
The puzzle, of course, is knowledge. The pieces are those little
papers and studies that are published every year by scientists. They're
all the little discoveries. Scientists are people who devote their
lives to seeking out the pieces and trying to fit them in to what parts
of the puzzle we already have. And the pictures we have already
formed are magnificent. We have small segments of the large picture
that show us how rain works, and how life carries out its functions. We
have other pictures showing us how things we can't even see affect
other things, and we're even inching closer to a clear picture on how
the universe began. But we're still far from the big picture.
How about the study of sciences? Throughout grade school, children
are informed about the great puzzle of science and they are even shown a
few pieces here and there. However, every once in a while a
particularly good teacher will show a few seemingly unrelated pieces to
students and show them how they fit together, sowing the seeds for
future scientists. In college, those of us who have decided that
searching for pieces of the puzzle is a worthwhile endeavor are divided
into groups. After all, the puzzle is far too large already for any
single person to see it all and help on all sides. There are pieces
hidden within the Earth that Geologists and Geophysicists look for, and
pieces hidden in tiny particle interactions that Chemists look for.
Pieces in life forms that Biologists tend to and pieces in space that
Astronomers look for and pieces in the many facets of the fabric of
reality that Physicists and Mathematicians search for. And once you
choose where you want to look, you take years to first see all the
pieces that have already been found. Once you're done and you've seen
all that has been done in an area, you may contribute to it yourself.
And, of course, given the gravity of a task that assembling all of
knowledge is, there is no room for error. Whenever someone finds a
piece, every scientist flocks around to make sure that it fits into the
puzzle just like they say it does. And if it doesn't, it's removed or
replaced. Sometimes this happens quickly, as with the recent claim of
arsenic-based life, and sometimes it can take quite a while longer, as
with the piece that Newton put in place that looked fine for centuries
until Einstein put a better piece in its place. Some pieces are placed
in the puzzle right when they are found, like Darwin's little piece
which fit snugly into a biological segment and giving many other pieces a
home, while others are found but seem to have no clear place or only a
couple of attachments, like the recently discovered facts that electrons
are the closest things to mathematically perfect spheres in existence.
And this is where the joy of looking for the puzzle pieces resides.
It's putting together the blueprints for the universe and seeing how
everything is interconnected. It's learning something totally new and
paving the way for so many other puzzle pieces to be placed. Finding a
new piece that ties things neatly together or a piece that shows
something previously thought impossible is actually possible is the joy
of science. Helping complete the puzzle of knowledge is the most
satisfying endeavor one can undertake. However, it is also in many ways
Scientists do not fear death in the way that other people do. They
do not fear dying per se, they simply regret not being able to live
forever. Because the woe of the scientist, the true, merciless,
unforgiving truth, is knowing that no matter how long you live, and no
matter how many pieces of the puzzle you place, you will never see the
picture on the box. And that is a terrible thing indeed.
Ah, the endgame feeling. There's little
else in this world that so perfectly encompasses the true meaning of the
word 'bittersweet' as the endgame feeling. Now, while I'm certain that
you've all felt what I'm talking about at some point or other, I
imagine you're still wondering exactly what I mean. Allow me to
The endgame feeling is the surge of emotion that you feel when
completing some sort of media event of an adventurous nature for the
first time.. In case you're still not sure what I mean, allow me to
illustrate with one of the strongest examples I've ever experienced.
I started reading Harry Potter books in the year 2000; I was seven
years old at the time. Over that year, I managed to work through the
four books that had been published at the time. I became absolutely
enthralled with the world of Harry Potter. I learned its lore, its
terminology, and I was aching to know how the story progressed. Each
time a new book was published, I made a point to buy it as soon as
possible and read it quickly, and so I was further drawn into and
captivated by all the ins and outs of the universe. Every character was
fully fleshed out, and all were amazingly detailed, even the ones I
didn't like; in short, I was completely immersed. And then, summer 2007
rolled around and the final book was finally released. Absolutely
chock-full of the wonderful world I had come to know and love, I read
the entire thing in one day. Every page brought more of the amazing
story to me, building up and turning and spinning and showing me the
amazing conclusion. And then that was it. The book was over. The
story was over. The end. I felt amazing, having experienced everything
that I did with those books, but at the same time, knowing I would
never read any further exploits from Harry and the gang filled me with a
great sadness. There would never be anything new in the story for me
to find out. There was nothing next. And that, that great happiness
and that terrible sadness, that is the endgame feeling.
I'm sure you know what I'm talking about now; as sure as I am that you've experienced it before.
Maybe you felt the endgame feeling after watching some great films. I
know I felt it when I first watched the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.
Maybe you felt it when you watched a great TV series. I know I felt it when LOST ended.
Maybe you felt it when you finished an incredible game. I know I felt it when I first finished Ocarina of Time.
But you know what I'm talking about now.
That feeling, that great and terrible feeling, is one of the most
amazing parts of a great experience. That's why you wish you could do
something again for the first time. To feel the endgame feeling and all
of the glory and sorrow it entails. Because it's never the same. I've
reread Harry Potter and rewatched the Lord of the Rings and replayed
Ocarina of Time, and it's never the same. Because once you feel it for
the first time, you'll never feel it the same way again.