Physics vs. Spirit: It’s game on

Posted in Uncategorized by Sean Holton on August 24, 2010

"Creation finds the pressure of its everlasting secret too terrible to bear" (Thomas Merton)


Scientists peering deep into space recently announced they have found a small black hole way the hell out there belching a vast bubble of hot gas into the universe. They say this perpetually burning balloon of matter is 1,000 light years (LIGHT YEARS!!) across.  That seemed to me at first to be so unimagineably big and scary that it defied the human capacity to imagine, let alone be scared. The picture of the gas bubble is at left. Click this link
to read the whole story.                                                                                     

But you don’t even need to read the story to instantly grasp the basic questions raised by this development. What if we look out the window one day and see that one of these sputtering black holes has backed into our galactic driveway, parked within range and aimed its flame-belching exhaust pipe right at our humble home planet? What are we supposed to do then? Load Bruce Willis onto the space shuttle and send him up there to put the fire out with some giant, nuclear-bomb-powered extinguisher? I don’t think so. This situation sounds way more serious even than the familiar killer asteroid that we already know how to eliminate. Thanks to Hollywood, that apocalyptic scenario seems almost pedestrian at this point. But for this gas bubble thing, the human race may need a Plan B involving a representative even bigger and badder than Bruce Willis. Maybe we’ll need to line up someone like aging NBA giant Shaquille O’Neal. Could Shaq kick this thing’s ass? Maybe. Maybe we could give Shaq command of the International Space Station along with our whole fleet of space shuttles and some rebuilt Saturn V rockets from the Apollo program, then rig them all to a wheel as wide as one of Saturn’s rings that would turn some sort of Moon-sized valve and slowly choke off the jet of cosmic gas. Sounds cool. But on second thought I don’t think that plan works either. It just doesn’t seem like something you turn around on short notice in the face of such an extinction event, especially now with NASA’s budget being cut and the space-shuttle program being retired next year. Sorry, Shaq. But good luck with the Celtics this year, either way.                                                                                                               

Now, with the “let’s-go-up-there-and-kick-this-thing’s-butt” option off the table, I can see how lots of scientists might start thinking ahead to a Plan C, even though one of these bubbles hasn’t popped up next door yet. That is: We must design and build sophisticated new spaceships able to transport continent-sized, environmental-control-and-life-support systems that will allow us to propagate our species far beyond Earth, sending humans to colonize other planets in distant solar systems.  Maybe that can save us from stuff like this.  But then you start running the numbers and things get big and scary again. The most distant human-made object now travelling through the universe is the Voyager 1 spacecraft. It was launched from Earth way back in 1977 and even at its speed of 38,000 miles per hour has only now made its way to the outer reaches of our own little solar system.  According to my quick research and calculations, if that burning cloud of gas in the picture up there is really 1,000  light years in diameter like the story says, it’s big enough to swallow nearly 800,000 solar systems the size of ours in one gulp. Luckily it is located in the galaxy NGC 7793, which is 12 million light years away. But if something like this ever were to bubble up within the friendly, 100,000-light-year-wide confines of our own Milky Way galaxy, we’d be lucky just to get a few hundred years’ advance warning. Then our would-be, spacefaring Pilgrims of human propagation would need to design and build a Mayflower spaceship capable of traveling at the speed of light in order to haul ass in whatever direction necessary to escape the bubble’s fiery blast. Sound doable? I don’t know if the technology will ever be there.  The speed of light is about 17,500 times faster than our current technological pride and joy — that 1977 Voyager spacecraft — which in a discussion on this scale of astrophysics might as well be a 1985 Plymouth Voyager minivan.                                                                                               

So if we can’t kill it and we can’t outrun it, then how are human beings supposed to respond to this infinitely horrible and new fact of physics? The only answer I can think of is the same answer that gives me strength each day as I learn to think about, read about and live with the infinitesimally horrible fact of my individual case of brain cancer: We simply worry less about Physics and put more of our trust in Spirit.  Whether you label it “God” or “Divinity” or “Religion” or “Faith” or “Life” or “Soul” or “Hope” or “Eternity” or “Knowledge” or “Art” or “Love” or “Children” or simply “Spirituality” depends on your personal perspective. But whatever our cultural traditions, the common and ancient ability humans have to discern and wield this force in the universe and live our lives within its framework is the most powerful factor we bring to the cosmic table. It’s way more powerful than any black hole, rocketship or rogue cancer cell. Sure, Physics will always seem to have the home-field advantage out there in the natural order of the visible universe. The crazy, mind-boggling numbers and inevitably grim medical outcomes will always seem to fall on the side of Physics. But the visiting squad — Spirit — will prevail if we can learn to let it do its work. I have sensed this truth in a  fuzzy, abstract way for my whole life. I’ve touched on it here in posts about prayer and despair and spiritual death. Now I can say that because of my own experiences since July 2009, I believe it in my gut and I am confident my spirit cannot be broken no matter what else happens to me physically. (NOTE: I’ll have more news on that front next week after my next MRI brain scan on Monday, a report from my doctor on Tuesday about how my tumor has responded to my new chemotherapy routine and an updated prognosis.)                                                               

Thomas Merton (1915-1968)


I didn’t start this blog to preach or prescribe, so please don’t mistake the previous paragraph for a sermon. I started this blog simply to share — with anyone who wants to keep up — what’s been going on inside my head (medically and otherwise) during my brain-cancer journey.  So because the whole line of thought triggered by the black-hole-bubble-scare story has been part of that, I figured I’d better share that, too. If it’s all too rambling and random for you, then just don’t take my word for it. But encouraging me further in this direction this past week has been spending an hour or so each evening reading the poetry and prose of a guy whose been dead now for 42 years — the Catholic mystic Thomas Merton.  Now if you want to hear a real pro weigh in on matters of Physics and Spirit, you should read some of his stuff. Merton was born in France in 1915, but he did his best and most popular writing from 1941 until his death in 1968 while living the contemplative life of a Trappist monk at a place called the Abbey of Gethsemani way out in the middle of Kentucky. A friend sent me a great introduction to his work, a brilliant 2007 compilation and distillation of writings called A Book of Hours. The book is organized to lead a reader through a full week of Merton’s observations of the physical world and his meditations on its spiritual dimensions. Each of the book’s seven chapters is devoted to a single day, which is in turn broken down into its four parts (dawn, day, dusk, dark). I’ve mostly enjoyed reading each day’s whole chapter at one sitting — usually while sipping on a Budweiser or a glass of Jamesons Irish Whiskey on my back porch at the end of the day while dinner is on the stove.  Though not strictly in the Trappist tradition, spending Happy Hour with Merton has been a great adventure — like sitting down to have a beer each night with Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman and my parish priest all at the same time.  Anyway, Merton’s gift was his ability to perceive and express his vision of God, Spirit and divinity suffused through all of physical reality.  The implication being, of course, that it is the spiritual that informs, animates, supersedes and is therefore more powerful than the physical — not the other way around. Here, for example, is a passage from the first chapter, describing Dawn on Sunday:                                                    


For, like a grain of fire 
Smouldering in the heart of every living essence 
God plants His undivided power -- 
Buries His thought too vast for worlds 
In seed and root and blade and flower,
Until, in the amazing shadowlights 
Surcharging the religious silence of the spring 
Creation finds the pressure of its everlasting secret 
Too terrible to bear.
Then every way we look, lo! rocks and trees Pastures and hills and streams and birds and firmament And our own souls within us flash,     and shower us with light, While the wild countryside, unknown, unvisited Bears sheaves of clean, transforming fire.

  Those lines are just Merton’s reflections on a simple sunrise on a Sunday in Kentucky, folks. But as I read them, I thought immediately of that picture of the interstellar gas bubble and wondered what Merton might have said about that. I’d like to imagine him saying something like “Hi there, God. How ya doin’?”                     

According to his biography on Wikipedia, Merton died while attending an interfaith conference between Catholic and non-Christian monks in Bangkok, Thailand: “While stepping out of his bath, he reached out to adjust an electric fan and apparently touched an exposed wire and was electrocuted.”  Okay, so maybe in the end the great devotee of Spirit turned his back on Physics at a critically wrong instant and it bit him in the ass. Still, I don’t think it means his side lost. My guess is that when the final buzzer sounded on his life, the last thoughts to pass through Thomas Merton’s mind had more to do with irony than with death, defeat or fear.                     


4 Responses

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  1. Justus said, on August 24, 2010 at 4:58 pm

    Sean, brilliant as usual–Thank you

  2. claudine hellmuth said, on August 24, 2010 at 5:02 pm

    great post Sean!! Will be sending you good thoughts on Monday!!

  3. Elaine said, on August 25, 2010 at 8:43 am

    My father’s cousin was a brother at Gesthemani.

    Brother Oswald was allowed to have visitors one day a year, and so my parents, sometimes with Dad’s sisters along, would travel to the Abbey for a day of gentle company. They’d come home laden with breads, cheese and jam made by the brothers.

    From what I understood of Brother Oswald’s life, residents of the Abbey observe a vow of silence, but not in the strictest sense. They are allowed to speak but not to waste words. Their goal is contemplation, and unnecessary talking would obviously interfere with that greater intention of thoughtful reverence.

    I had not known that Thomas Merton lived in this same Abbey. But I can well imagine how an environment of literal peace and quiet would foster beautiful thoughts and meaningful words. Thank you for sharing Merton’s meditation on a sunrise.

    May you be showered with light Monday and always.

  4. Jane said, on August 25, 2010 at 11:05 am

    I think you just wrote a blog on why we need NASA in Florida….I’ll dedicate my next yoga practice to you.

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