Sunday, December 18, 2011

"Helloo - elloo - ellooo........"

Phil Burpee, Columnist, Pincher Creek Voice

Phil Burpee
If the nucleus of an atom were about the size of a grapefruit, its orbiting electrons would just be a few specks of dust circling around about a kilometre out. Atoms aggregate to form molecules, of which billions constitute each cell of our bodies, which, in turn, comprise trillions in number. We are mostly empty space - as is our planet, our local star (aka the Sun), and pretty much the whole rest of the Universe. While this is quite understandable in, say, the brain of a Tory, it does raise some interesting philosophical questions.
For if we are mostly not made up of anything you could really put your finger on, as, indeed, are not all the different 'things' on the shelf at Crappy Tire - then what exactly is it that we call a Ford 150, or Aunt Shirley, or the Husky Tower? Even if you were standing inside some really hard stuff, like steel or rock - you'd still feel like you were an ant rattling around inside the Saddledome, with nothing but echoes bouncing down out of the nosebleed seats up in the rafters. "Helloo - elloo - ellooo........".  Atom Ant indeed.  

Atom Ant

It's tough enough to consider that 'stuff' isn't really there, but it gets incrementally weird when we stop to think how 'thought' and 'idea' occur in this big, breezy echo chamber we call the world. Right now, I'm having this idea that I'm having an idea - but that idea is manifesting in a virtual void within which course electro-magnetic excitations. Sugar molecules burning in my head provide the energy to create electrical current, which in turn ricochets around my skull and renders an image of the boiled eggs I'm about to go eat. But those eggs are themselves basically just empty space, and the pleasure of eating them that I now anticipate is merely a sensation based on previous such chow-downs - a function of memory, that ill-understood buzz of 'information' from the past. It is likewise disconcerting to realize that all the marvels of the computer age have come to us as a result of the determination that all external information can be broken down into a series of ones and zeros, in astonishingly long and rapid sequences. You know that 'Twilight' episode you just downloaded, or that 'Best of Barry Manilow' collection? -  just ones and zeros. If you look at your flashlight, or your kitchen fan, you will likely see a switch with a one and a zero on it - on and off. That may be the sum total of it. My impression of impending eggs and toast may be nothing more than a dreary, robotic run of ones and zeros - on/off, on/off, on/off.............. Might the wonders of creation be similarly so bland? A tree, a strain of music, a tender touch, high-flown flights of fancy?   No - and I'll tell you why not: -

Because nothing so amazes as the Moon in all its phases
and nothing so beguiles as the sound
of hummingbirds and marching bands
of symphonies and clapping hands -
oh my, see how the wonders do abound.

From the belt of Great Orion, to the smell of bacon fryin'
there's a limitless array of crazy things
that challenge in perplexity
or stimulate in sexity
awash in all the magic that life brings.

So don't succumb to smogma or some dreary little dogma
don't let them tell you circles are now square
for deep inside the history
of every curtained mystery
you'll find a little doorway if you dare.

And through it lie the grassy fields whereon the great confusion yields
and clarity descends upon a star
falling in your pocket
like some precious little locket
with the picture of just who you really are.

In such a bright mosaic there is nothing so prosaic
as limiting the infinite expanse
that stretches from a child's eye 
beyond into a wild sky
where echoes of creation skip and dance. 

"Where echoes of creation skip and dance"

So no, I'm not really going for the ones and zeros thing. No clunky digital amalgam for me. In such a vast, roiling, implacable, rushing, monstrous and ungraspable Universe as the one in which we find ourselves, I choose to celebrate the very fact of my consciousness and awareness within it as a gift of sublime caprice, serendipity and preciousness. I will not relinquish it to mere digital mechanics - bean-counters to the nth degree. Nor will I relinquish it to the frothing mystics or the eyes-rolling-back-in-their-head zealots, who always seek to involve some Big Person out there to account for the exquisite mysteries of the ineffable and the numinous. For, although there are, without doubt, many fine and impressive gods around, they are all, in the words of the late and lamented Carl Sagan - ".. simply too small for the Cosmos that I see around me." Don't get me wrong -  some gods are very serious dudes indeed - what with smiting and sore boils and raining frogs and what-not. But if I was tasked to point out what I thought might be a pretty good representation of a stone, serious, hard-working, journeyman god in this neck of the woods, I think I might opt for perhaps the multi-million-sun-mass Black Hole at the centre of the Milky Way. Now here's a thing that's so voracious and so flat-out friggin' awesome, that it not only eats entire stars - it eats actual light itself - stuff that moves 186,000 miles per second - gobbled up like so much bath water down the drain of no return. At the centre of it, I am told, lies a quirky non-thing, enigmatically known as a 'singularity'.  This is a place where finally the echoes do not occur - it has no space, it has no time - it is squashed so tight that its mass becomes functionally infinite, even as its volume diminishes to zero. It is, by all accounts, one of the doorways back to the Big Bang. Here lies power.

But back to southern Alberta. As I write the summary of this brief meditation, the stars are twinkling in an inky sky. Venus has gone to bed behind the western mountains and old Jupiter rides high above, monarch of his realm. I did eat those eggs, and they were tasty indeed. It may well be that the whole affair was just a sub-atomic charade, but what the hell. There is something alluringly real about what we choose to call reality. And that's just as well - well, really. In the Orient they say that the best place to invest your energies is right here, in the moment. You're gonna die and come around again anyway - and if your luck doesn't hold all that well, you might have to pick up again as a snail, or a politician. Here in the Occident we are inclined to say that, tough as things might seem right now, if you pay your dues and make the right pious noises, you get to live forever after you're dead  - apparently eating pizza and drinking beer and sitting around on clouds a lot.

So, there we have it. It's a funny world. And it is a wondrous one. I think it is best to hedge our bets and love this life. The fact of our being alive is so vanishingly unlikely in the swirling vastness of this cosmic theatre, that it surely behoves us to stop periodically in order to express sheer, unadorned awe. Put down that remote. Shut off the phone. Listen, for a moment, to the beating of your own heart - that most personal, and poignant, of echoes.

                                 "O love, they die in yon rich sky,
                                  They faint on field or hill or river:
                                  Our echoes roll from soul to soul,
                                  And grow forever and forever."

                                                                                   Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Helloo - elloo - ellooo.........."

Phil Burpee
December 17, 2011


  1. Anonymous22/12/11

    Burpee's column recalls the film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which pauses amongst paintings of humans made 40 thousand years ago so we can hear our human heart beat. Tis wonderous to be part of the race.
    Ian McWallop

  2. Patricia Runions28/12/11


    P. Runions


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