Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Cetaceous and the Celestial

Hate to do a "best of" to you today, but I thought I'd
bring you a post I made on my other blog (sadly neglected of late)
a while ago, because it says a number of things that
are important to me, and I liked my turn of phrase in it.

I once holidayed on Moreton Island, off the Queensland coast. One of a tiny handful of places on Earth where wild dolphins nightly congregate to be near, and fed by, humans. There we were, I and my wife and young son, standing on a long wharf under the brilliant splendour of a starry southern-hemisphere sky. Below us, in the shallow water, sentient beings were bringing their young to the sandy shore to be fed fish and, I am sure, to gaze curiously up at their distant, landbound cousins. If you’ve ever been regarded by a dolphin, you'll know what I mean.

Occasionally, the dolphins would break their formation along the line of handlers moderating the queue of people who wished to feed them, wheeling away to chase off an interloping (but entirely harmless) Wobbegong shark in silent but flawless concert, or reprove an errant calf back to within its mother’s watchful gaze. I looked upward to see the warm breeze stirring the palm trees along the beach, and the dunes of the island rising to black silhouette against the velvet sky.

Suddenly, half the sky was incandescent- immediately where I had rested my gaze. A massive fireball, green and white, was streaking across the sky, comet-tailed, writhing. For perhaps four long seconds, a hundred people froze with upturned faces; gasping. The Meteor was significant enough that it featured on the TV news the following night, and there was speculation it had landed, somewhere inland.

Afterwards, on a long walk along the beach alone, I was struck with a powerful sense of… planethood. Of being a citizen of the Cosmos, given a sliver of the grandeur that the Universe is full of, but hidden from sight by the tyranny of distance and human mortality. Friends who know me well will recognise my disorder, which I refer to as a propensity to “come over all Carl Sagan” at such moments.

I held a sense that such wonder as I felt is more than atoms just bumping together. That dolphins, palm trees and meteors, along with the delight of my Son’s efforts at sand castle building, were emergent properties arising from the same physical laws that were equally valid near each of the 200 to 400 billion stars I saw above me in the edge-on view of our galaxy, one hundred thousand light years across.

This Uranian muse led me further: I became aware of how my love of Science was contributing to my sense of wonder. I was turning over in my head many things- the scale and age of the Universe wheeling above me; the philosophical debate about animal sentience and the nature of consciousness; the Deep Time that freed the sands upon which I trod from their parent rocks; the probability that the colour of the meteor’s ionisation trail was indicative of its metallic composition, the notion that this breadloaf sized piece of rock had probably silently orbited the Sun since my ancestors were lobe-finned fish, before choosing the very instant I was looking up to meet its end. I imagined that the rock’s entire history- every microscopic perturbation of its orbit, its lonely solitude in the outer solar system, and its precise moment of death, were in some sense purposed. Meant for observation. So I would be inspired to write this. So that you would read it, and so that you could share in the singular sensation it evinced.

At that moment, my heart was full. I gave thanks that I lived in an age where, even though we are only one rung above the ignorance that has characterised most of human history, what we have learned as a species through the application of Science had brought me, for a numinous instant, closer to God.

Later, I wondered at how others might interpret the same things as I had observed, believing themselves to be both sane and wise. Without the benefit of the insights Science have afforded, I might have regarded Dolphins as little more than food, never inquiring concerning their ability to love or suffer. I might have regarded the meteor as an ill-omen, perhaps requiring some kind of sacrifice to propitiate an angry deity. The galactic vista spread above my head would be seen as little more than window dressing- the irrelevant backdrop to an entire Universe which was not merely Geocentric, but Homocentric.

Lastly, I realised that there were those- many, in point of fact, who would regard all the Science that was brought to bear to enable my sense of wonderment, as... suspect. Certainly presumptious. Possibly even evil. The Geology accurately explaining the sandy strata in the cliffs above me would be seen as a deliberately deceit, pushed by those seeking to “do away with God”. The Astronomy purporting to describe a Cosmos of many billions of light-years and many trillions of stars would be seen as, quite literally, diabolically inspired, and eroding of faith. The Biology which shows the evolutionary vestiges of the Dolphin’s Artiodactylic, terrestrial ancestors would be dismissed out of hand as “foolishly based on the wrong worldview”.

Experiences like these have shown me that my Universe is immeasurably grander and honouring to the extravagant creativity of God than the tiny, middle-eastern, pre-Scientific, vengeful god that many people incorrectly presume to extract from the pages of the Bible. The views of such people are as outdated as witch burning and will be looked upon as such by future generations.

And if this annoys you, good.

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