Physics, cosmology, connection, time, and end of life
Updated: Sep 29, 2020
"The time of starlight is finite."
I had the great pleasure of seeing Professor Brian Cox speak* in Auckland last week, and I was struck by the number of parallels between his cosmology talk and many of the priorities I hold in my end of life consultancy work.
*I will out myself at this point as being much stronger with language than I am with numbers, so even though I have been reading and following developments in quantum physics for decades, I am not able to understand the formulae and equations because I do not have the mathematical knowledge to do so. I am deeply interested in the theories and processes uncovered by deep space exploration and in the LHC at CERN, but I need to read or hear a walk-through of how the equation/formula relates to the physical world. In addition to the recorded lectures, podcasts, documentaries, and public lectures I enjoy, Cox's talk with both word and images facilitate my understanding particularly well, permitting me a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of physics than I would ordinarily have access to.
We have as much time as we have...
Life, like starlight as Cox notes, is finite - it does not matter whether we are thinking in mammalian or cosmological time-scales, the finite nature of all existence is predetermined. I am quite struck by the quiet poetic reasoning of Cox's words here that humans, like starlight, shine for a period of time only. As many Gentle Readers here are well aware, I think that (for similar reasons, despite changes in scale of consideration) we humans are culturally trained to be challenged by thinking about an end - be it for ourselves, or for the universe we are a part of. So, I thought I would take a moment to accommodate my sociologist side here today to consider what may seem to be unrelated frameworks of thought: the human and the cosmological. Sociologists spend a good deal of time considering concepts and theories in terms of frameworks; for large-scale frameworks (governments, nations, education systems, bureaucracy, etc.) the term in use is macro. Small-scale, intimate, personal frameworks (lived experience, family, immediate social connections) are termed micro. If you wish to consider an intersection of the two the term is meso, but for now I am going to stay with the opposite ends of the consideration framework today, with the universe/cosmos as our macro, and human life as our micro.
Although not all of us will be born, all of us will die - and we understand how humans are conceived, and that death is an inevitable part of the life journey. The universe can be considered in a broadly similar fashion: the big bang was a stage of conception, elements, stars and galaxies were formed, and death for the universe is an inevitable part of it's life journey*. When we think of our own death one way to put it off is to simply not think about it, which leads to all sorts of issues when end of life wishes and care planning is not in place, see my previous post here. We are culturally trained to NOT think about death as there is a good deal of money to be made from corporate businesses from ignorance and fear - historically a variety of religions have made entire fortunes from people literally trying to buy their way into the 'good' afterlife, and now funeral homes are flagrantly profiteering from ignorance of the general public aided by an opacity of true funeral and body-care requirements and costs. Thinking about the death of the universe may be seen as an amplification of our own fears of death as the Unknown, as when the universe dies, we by default die also. *I won't go into detail here, but the heat death of the universe is explained very well by Professor Cox, adroitly aided and abetted by Robin Ince - buy a ticket to see them on tour, listen to the Infinite Monkey Cage Podcast, or see YouTube.
The time is now
“The ultimate paradox, of course, is that even though we're all going to die, we've all got to live in the meantime…” Cox's position - beautifully expressed on stage for the Universal tour - regarding a reasonable way to live life knowing that both our complex, human mammalian, form of life and the universe will ultimately and inevitably die, is to try and live as meaningful a life as possible. Making meaning is a deeply personal process - and concept - one that I engage with regularly in my work, and is a concept that most clients I work with discuss and consider. I do my best to support clients by using their own words whenever possible (something I also strive for in my research writing), because I am aware of the importance of not trying to impose my own ideas of the 'meaningful' onto the eulogy or funeral speech, memorial project, memory book content, or video script I am preparing with and for a client. I will be honest and say that assisting and facilitating others to articulate and achieve something that represents their own essence of the meaningful means a good deal to me. And I find the process deeply satisfying.
One of the more interesting aspects of physics and cosmological research over the past few years has been the refining of black hole theory; in combination with Double Negative who created the visual effects for explaining event horizons and time distortion I have a much richer understanding of the way black holes work in physical space and time. One of the more compelling understandings I have from Cox's latest talk, too, is the urgency of acting now, because time is also finite. I write a good deal about not putting off the important tasks - showing and telling your most precious people and pets how much you love them, doing and reviewing your advance planning and signing the documents, eating really good-quality gelato (if I haven't I will, I promise!), etc. - and the event horizon special effects video resonated quite strongly with me on this point in particular. Watching the video unfold behind Cox as he spoke also helped me re-frame and consider afresh what the overlaps and intersections of the meaningful and the important are for me in my own professional and private life. Interesting stuff for me as a personal reflection.
What has been the most meaningful aspect of your day or week, Gentle Reader? I invite you to take a moment to consider what is most meaningful for you in life - take notes if you like, this may be useful a bit later on.
Our cosmos in community
I write, lecture, and research a good deal in the area of compassionate communities, and I do try to walk my talk. Sometimes when I think I am - literally - putting my writing and words out into a void I remember the quote (above) by USA astrophysicist and science communicator Neil Degrasse Tyson. We are, of course, all in community with our finite lives within a finite universe: but our connection to each other is much more fundamental and profound than we often acknowledge. We are made of the same 'stuff', our experiences - like our DNA - are often far more in parallel than we may wish to realise because we humans are so terribly concerned with 'difference' and other. For today, how would it be if we all put some energy into connecting and listening to the people in our lives and world? What might be the outcome if we all stopped saying to ourselves "that's not me" when we see or hear something good/bad/indifferent that has happened to another person? I quite like the notion that we could all embrace our inner stardust more often, and if doing so helps us all to pay much more regular attention to the people around us and advance planning for our end of life, then so much the better.
On a note of fairness, Robin Ince does have a solo speaking slot in the second half of the show, presenting an elegiac and bittersweet reflection of the passing of time and about memory - and he does this well. However, Ince's reflections are about parenting and the wonder of childhood as seen through the lens of some adventurous walks in the woods with his son, so I was not immediately struck by the parallels inherent in Ince's contribution to both the Universal event, or my initial thoughts about this blog post. Of course, I needed time to get past my initial revulsion to all things human child, and when I did I recognised that Ince's words and stories are about the passing of any beloved time, person, or physically important element of our lives. Ince in fact took the cosmos to the truly micro level, and the building of a small, intimate space in the woods for fun and play which was undone by other walkers by the time Ince and his son returned to the same spot some time later, is a lovely metaphor for the private and personal universes in our own heads, the immediate universe of our day to day life, and the actual universe we are such a small part of. All things pass, but I appreciate how lovingly Ince describes and story-tells his perspective. I am glad I took time to reconsider his parent/child narrative.
Are you curious about your place in the world and how you might craft a truly effective eulogy or video message for your funeral or for family members after your death? Would you like to know more about how your own micro-level interests and perspectives had an impact on the macro-level networks and communities around you? Do you want to have someone to ask listen to you as you consider your own 'space' in the world and what is meaningful and important to you? Please do not hesitate to contact me - I am happy to talk life, death, the universe, and how you might make your ideas for the perfect, perfectly meaningful, advance planning or creative project come to fruition. And don't forget, you can do this for your pet, too! Bring along your notes from earlier in the blog about what you find meaningful - you may be surprised at how inspiring you already are.
Let's talk - email@example.com