Science, Solace And Hope

Sep 11, 2012

I would like to give you this. It's not much. But in its way it may offer some solace on this date always synonymous with suffering.

It's an image. It is a picture of someplace else, someplace utterly different, someplace that knows nothing of the hatred, bigotry and violence humans unleash on each other for the most seemly absurd reasons.

It's a place where the universe is trying something new, a place of new beginnings and, perhaps someday, new life. It's a region of star formation 2,600 light years away (10,000-trillion miles).

It's a vast cloud of gas and dust, formed (in part) by the winds of stars that have already completed their lives and are returning the heavy elements forged in their fusion cores back to space. The clouds are rich with these atomic seeds: carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and more. As they collapse under their own gravity to form new stars, the new elements go with them, ending up, perhaps, in new planets. These will be fragile worlds made of stone and ocean. And each revolution, each day, they will host the rising of their own young stars and their own possibilities.

It's all there in this image of incredible scale, of incredible power and potency. It's all there in this picture of ineffable beauty. It's beauty on a physical scale that dwarfs our own experience and limitations. It is from that vantage point that we might find solace and some hope.

A dear friend of my mine lost her brother – a good and honest man – 11 years ago today. He was one of the heroes of United flight 93. A painter of great talent, she has found solace using art to help hospitalized children. The effort expended through the process of expression has helped her.

My own brother died in a car crash when I was 9. I turned to the images of galaxies and nebula I found in my astronomy books. It was the creative expression of the universe as a whole that helped me.

In both cases there is a power in the beauty and fecundity of nature – including our own responses to them – that can lift the crushing weight of sorrow.

The relief will be only temporary. The horror of loss always rushes in again. And when our loss comes through deliberate malice of others, then the sting of simple questions like "Why?" makes the weight of our suffering all the heavier.

But these images of the universe we inhabit can overwhelm that malice with their scale and beauty. They can deliver to us a taste of freedom, for at least a few breaths. In these great works of nature's own art we can remember that, in spite of the raw selfishness some humans are capable of, in spite of the depths of suffering some humans are willing to inflict for the most craven reasons, we are still children of this wider, grander range of possibilities. We are still, and always, part of something much, much greater.

That is a perspective science offers us in the midst of suffering and, in its way, it is is a glimpse of what is sacred. In that way, it can be of help.

You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter @AdamFrank4. His latest book is About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang.

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