Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Les matins du monde

"Thirteen billion years ago it was morning in the universe." So began a story in the New York Times about new studies of the earliest galaxies. The Hubble Space Telescope and the giant Subaru and Keck Telescopes on Mauna Kea in Hawaii are turning back the curtain on the birthing room of the first stars -- colossal spheres of primeval hydrogen and helium, hundreds of times as massive as the Sun, that lived and died in violence, forging heavy elements, seeding creation with the stuff of planets and life.

Tous les matins du monde sont sans retour: The mornings of the world are without return. If the astronomers are right in their current calculations of the recession rate of the galaxies, the universe will expand forever, growing ever more dilute, ultimately expiring in cold and dark.

Some years ago we imagined that the universe might be cyclic -- expand, contract, expand, contract, an endless repetition of big bangs tethered by gravity, God's big bolo bat. For the time being, a cyclic universe does not seem to fit the data. Is the universe then a one-shot affair? Who knows. There's another possibility. That this universe is just one of many, perhaps an infinite number, bubbling into existence, blazing brightly, then collapsing upon themselves or stretching themselves infinitely thin.

Every people, at every time, have had creation stories. Our story is the first to be affirmed tentatively, the only one held to the refining fire of empirical observation. We take our story seriously, but we don't stake our lives on it. Unlike every people who lived before us -- and most who are alive today -- we take our meaning from the search, not from a conclusion. We define ourselves as explorers. We welcome mystery as a challenge. We embrace our ignorance as a vessel waiting to be filled.