When my atheist engineer grandfather died, my atheist engineer grandmother leaned over the physique within the hospice mattress that had contained half a century of shared life and love, cradled the skull by which his cussed and delicate thoughts had dwelt, and whispered into the halogen-lit ether:
“The place did you go, my darling?”
No matter our beliefs, these sensemaking playthings of the thoughts, when the second of fabric undoing comes, we — creatures of second and matter — merely can not fathom how one thing as beautiful because the universe of thought and feeling inside us can vanish into nothingness.
Even when we perceive that dying is the token of our existential luckiness, even when we perceive that we’re borrowed stardust, certain to be returned to the universe that made it — a universe itself slouching towards nothingness as its stars are slowly burning out their power to go away a chilly austere darkness of pure spacetime — this understanding blurs into an anxious disembodied abstraction because the physique slouches towards dissolution. Animated by electrical impulses and temporal interactions of matter, our finite minds merely can not grasp a timeless and infinite inanimacy — a void past being.
Even Walt Whitman, who might maintain such multitudes of contradiction, couldn’t grasp the void. “I’ll make poems of my physique and of mortality,” he vowed as a younger man as he reverenced our shared materiality in his timeless declamation that “each atom belonging to me nearly as good belongs to you.” It was straightforward, from the shimmering platform of his prime, to stay up for changing into “the uncut hair of graves” upon returning his personal atoms to the grassy floor sooner or later.
However then, when that day loomed close to as he grew outdated and infirm, “the poet of the physique and the poet of the soul” abruptly couldn’t fathom the overall disbanding of his atomic selfhood, abruptly got here to “chuckle at what you name dissolution.”
After which he did dissolve, leaving us his immortal verses, verses penned when his particles sang with the electrical cohesion of youth and of well being, verses that traced with their fleshy finger the faint contour of an elemental reality: “What invigorates life invigorates dying.”
I want I might have given my grandmother, and given the dying Whitman, the infinitely invigorating Mr g: A Novel Concerning the Creation (public library) by the poetic physicist Alan Lightman — a magical-realist serenade to science, coursing with symphonic reality about our seek for which means, our starvation for magnificence, and what makes our tender, transient lives value dwelling.
Towards the tip of the novel, Mr g watches, with heartache unknown within the Void predating the existence of universes and of life, an outdated lady on her deathbed, the movie of her lengthy and painful and delightful life unspooling from the reel of reminiscence, leaving her grief-stricken by its terminus, shuddering with defiant disbelief that that is all.
“How can a creature of substance and mass fathom a factor with out substance or mass?” wonders Mr g as he sorrows watching her succumb to the very legal guidelines he created. “How can a creature who will definitely die have an understanding of issues that can exist ceaselessly?”
After which, as a faint smile washes throughout her face, she does die. Lightman writes:
At that second, there have been 3,147,740,103,497,276,498,750,208,327 atoms in her physique. Of her complete mass, 63.7 % was oxygen, 21.0 % carbon, 10.1 % hydrogen, 2.6 % nitrogen, 1.4 % calcium, 1.1 % phosphorous, plus a smattering of the ninety-odd different chemical components created in stars.
Within the cremation, her water evaporated. Her carbon and nitrogen mixed with oxygen to make gaseous carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, which floated skyward and mingled with the air. Most of her calcium and phosphorous baked right into a reddish brown residue and scattered in soil and in wind.
However then we see that each atom belonging to her — or, slightly, quickly borrowed by her — actually does belong to every thing and everybody, simply as you and I at the moment are inhaling the identical oxygen atoms that after inflated Walt Whitman’s lungs with the lust for all times:
Launched from their non permanent confinement, her atoms slowly unfold out and subtle by means of the ambiance. In sixty days’ time, they may very well be present in each handful of air on the planet. In 100 days, a few of her atoms, the vaporous water, had condensed into liquid and returned to the floor as rain, to be drunk and ingested by animals and crops. A few of her atoms have been absorbed by light-utilizing organisms and reworked into tissues and tubules and leaves. Some have been breathed in by oxygen creatures, included into organs and bone.
In a passage evocative of the central sentiment in Ursula Ok. Le Guin’s spare, beautiful poem “Kinship,” he provides:
Pregnant ladies ate animals and crops fabricated from her atoms. A 12 months later, infants contained a few of her atoms… A number of years after her dying, thousands and thousands of kids contained a few of her atoms. And their youngsters would include a few of her atoms as effectively. Their minds contained a part of her thoughts.
Will these thousands and thousands of kids, for generations upon future generations, know that a few of their atoms cycled by means of this lady? It’s not doubtless. Will they really feel what she felt in her life, will their recollections have flickering strokes of her recollections, will they recall that second way back when she stood by the window, guilt ridden and confused, and watched because the tadr chook circled the cistern? No, it isn’t attainable. Will they’ve some faint sense of her glimpse of the Void? No, it isn’t attainable. It’s not attainable. However I’ll allow them to have their very own transient glimpse of the Void, simply in the intervening time they go from dwelling to lifeless, from animate to inanimate, from consciousness to that which has no consciousness. For a second, they may perceive infinity.
And the person atoms, cycled by means of her physique after which cycled by means of wind and water and soil, cycled by means of generations and generations of dwelling creatures and minds, will repeat and join and make an entire out of elements. Though with out reminiscence, they make a reminiscence. Though impermanent, they make a permanence. Though scattered, they make a totality.
Right here we’re, you and me, Walt and Alan, my grandmother who’s and my grandfather who isn’t any extra — every of us a trembling totality, fabricated from particles each completely susceptible and completely indestructible, hungering for absolutes in a universe of kinfolk, hungering for permanence in a universe of ceaseless change, famished for which means, for magnificence, for emblems of existence.
Out of those hungers, out of those contradictions, we make every thing that invigorates life with aliveness: our artwork and our music, our poems and our arithmetic, our novels and our loves.