Probable Impossibilities: Physicist Alan Lightman on Beginnings, Endings, and What Makes Life Worth Living - Deepstash

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Beginnings and endings, or what we see as a beginning and an ending, like the coming of a New Year and the going of the “Old” one, unnerve us all. Here is an idea to foster and to share: “What exists is precious not because it will one day be lost but because it has overcome the staggering odds of never having existed at all.” Happy 2022. 🎉

THEMARGINALIAN

Probable Impossibilities: Physicist Alan Lightman on Beginnings, Endings, and What Makes Life Worth Living

Probable Impossibilities: Physicist Alan Lightman on Beginnings, Endings, and What Makes Life Worth Living

themarginalian.org

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What exists, exists so that it can be lost and become precious,” Lisel Mueller, who lived to nearly 100, wrote in her gorgeous poem “Immortality” a century and a half after a young arti...

And yet in a cosmological sense, what exists is precious not because it will one day be lost but because it has overcome the staggering odds of never having existed at all: within the fraction of matter in the universe that is not dark matter, a fraction of atoms cohered into the...

A Single Grain Of Sand

In Probable Impossibilities: Musings on Beginnings and Endings, the poetic physicist Alan Lightman sieves four centuries of scientific breakthroughs, from Kepler’s revolutionary ...

Building on his lifelong passion for harmonizing for absolutes in a relative world, our

Because we are self-referential creatures — the consequence of being creatures with selves, itself the consequence of consciousness — no void troubles us more than that of our own mortality: the notion of our absence from the scene of life. It is difficult enough to grasp how somethingnes...

Lightman closes his essay on the science of nothingness with a sentiment of touching, inescapable humanity:

What I feel and I know is that I am here now, at this moment in the grand sweep of time. I am not part of the void. I am not a fluctuation in the quantum vacuum....

Another essay, titled “Immortality,” explores this irreconcilable dissonance between the creaturely and the cosmic — the dissonance from which we make our most symphonic art as we try to fathom our existence. Lying in his hammock one summer day, Lightman observes:

ALAN LIGHTMAN

«A hundred years from now, I’ll be gone, but many of these spruce and cedars will still be here. The wind going through them will still sound like a distant waterfall. The paths that I wander may still be here, although probably covered with new vegetation. The...

And yet, in an echo of one of the book’s subtlest yet profoundest undertones, Lightman challenges our binary view of life and death. With an eye to consciousness — “the seemingly strange experience” that furnishes “the most profound and troubling aspect of human existence” — he argues that

Ever since Cecilia Payne discovered the chemical fingerprint of the universe, we have known that the atoms we are made of — seven thousand trillion trillion atoms in each of us, on avera...

ALAN LIGHTMAN

“To an alien intelligence, each of us human beings would appear to be an assemblage of atoms, humming with our various electrical and chemical energies. To be sure, it is a special assemblage. A rock does not behave like a person… When we die, this special asse...

That special assemblage is what we call consciousness. A century after Virginia Woolf observed that “one can’t write directly about the soul [for] looked at, it vanishes,” Lightman writes:

ALAN LIGHTMAN

The soul, as commonly understood, we cannot discuss scientifically. Not so with consciousness, and the closely related Self. Isn’t the experience of consciousness and Self an illusion caused by those trillions of neuronal connections...

ALAN LIGHTMAN

That sensation is rooted in the material brain. And I do not mean to diminish the brain in any way by affirming its materiality. The human brain is capable of all of the wondrous feats of imagination and self-reflection and thought that we as...

ALAN LIGHTMAN

“If someone began disassembling my brain one neuron at a time, depending on where the process began I might first lose a few motor skills, then some memories, then perhaps the ability to find particular words to make sentences, the ability to recognize faces, t...

An understanding of death as “the name that we give to a collection of atoms that once had the special arrangement of a functioning neuronal network and now no longer does so” renders the boundary between life and death more like a shoreline redrawn by the receding tide pool than like a c...

ALAN LIGHTMAN

“Despite my belief that I am only a collection of atoms, that my awareness is passing away neuron by neuron, I am content with the illusion of consciousness. I’ll take it. And I find a pleasure in knowing that a hundred years from now, even a thousand years fro...

ALAN LIGHTMAN

”If I could label each of my atoms at this moment, imprint each with my Social Security number, someone could follow them for the next thousand years as they floated in air, mixed with the soil, became parts of particular plants and trees, dissolved in the ocea...

As if it were not staggering enough how tiny a fraction of space life animates, Lightman observes that it also animates a fraction of time — not merely in terms of the transience of any one life, but in terms of all life occupying only a slender slice of the totality of time in the universe, as t...

The cosmic brevity of “the era of life” is bookended on one end by the slow condensation of colossal gas clouds into the first stars that forged the first atoms large enough to form complex structures, after the universe had already existed for about one billion years, and bookended on the other ...

And yet even in these cold unfeeling cosmic facts, Lightman finds reason to swell the brevity of existence with the warm feeling of kinship that makes life worth living. With an eye to his grain-of-Gobi-sand analogy, he writes:

“Life in our universe is a flash […], a few moments in ...

“We share something in the vast corridors of this cosmos we find ourselves in. What exactly is it we share? Certainly, the mundane attributes of “life”: the ability to separate ourselves from our surroundings, to utilize energy sources, to grow, to reproduce, to evolve...

ALAN LIGHTMAN

“I would argue that we “conscious” beings share something more during our relatively brief moment in the “era of life”: the ability to witness and reflect on the spectacle of existence, a spectacle that is at once mysterious, joyous, tragic, trembling, majestic...

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