A Quantum of Love

The following essay was originally published in an e-book titled, A Dozen Glimpses: Essays from a Regular Guy, available for Kindle at Amazon.com. Every now and then, I pull out the old essays and review them. While they are more general in nature than most of the ones appearing on this blog, they reflect some observations on what it means to be human, with all of the attendant anxieties, concerns, and even humor. If we can’t laugh at ourselves, we are missing out on one of the most enjoyable aspects of our species. “A Quantum of Love” is not of that humorous variety, but takes a serious look at priorities as demonstrated by what we choose to support. After spending much of my life looking at the world through the academic lens of science, I have come to question many of my earlier priorities. We are more than mingled elements, self-replicating molecules, and disjunct populations. Life is far more precious than academic foolishness, and to place a question of purely academic interest above saving a life, especially that of a child or any helpless innocent, has become increasingly anathema to me. When we realize that love is the foundation of the best of the human experience, we will begin to be better humans. I would love to see that world.

At a quarter past one a.m., I jolted awake to check on my son who had gotten sick on our trip to Memphis yesterday. The fever has broken, and he roused enough to acknowledge my presence, then he went back to sleep. If only I could.

Instead, my mind races to accommodate the bizarre news of two scientists that now say, based on their mathematical models, that the Large Hadron Collider at CERN beneath the Swiss-French frontier, has caused a ripple in time: the future itself may actually be working to sabotage the most monumental physics project in history, to thwart the attempts of mankind’s most ambitious minds to find the “God particle”, the elusive Higgs Boson, that is predicted to have been present at the primordial event of this universe, attendant on the birth of matter itself. They claim that this sabotage is “like going back in time to keep your grandfather from getting hit by a bus.”

Now, this would of necessity mean that there are alternate time streams: at least one in which the Higgs Boson were not found (the agent provocateur) and at least one in which there will (apparently) be tragic consequences (look around). Hmmm. Curiouser and curiouser. But this would mean that the point of divergence happened before the LHC spun up to power and made good on its promise to mimic the Big Bang. Shouldn’t the alternate, non-Bang time stream continue on its merry way while the affected one plays out to potential annihilation? Maybe such an event would reach across all realities, ripple the unseen dimensions of the fabric of space-time, and pluck a discordant strand in the web of the ultimate, unifying reality, reaching back to that initial, cataclysmic micro-instant of “THE BEGINNING”.

Why do men climb mountains? The obvious answer is, “Because they are there.” Why do men like Craig Venter try to create synthetic life with the likes of the Minimal Genome Project? Why are we obsessed with manned exploration of space? Why should we want to send humans back to the lifeless, dangerous craters of the moon and further on to Mars? (Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “Rocket Man” got it right: “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids, in fact it’s cold as Hell.”) Why must we spend multiplied billions of dollars on the LHC to answer questions of nothing more than academic curiosity? “Because they are there.”

That answer is patently unsatisfying, especially when there is so much suffering in the world. Had those billions of dollars been spent on alternate energy sources, perhaps global change could be alleviated. Had those billions of dollars been spent on developing food technologies, perhaps millions of children would not die of starvation. Had those billions of dollars been spent on medical research, perhaps more millions of people would not have to die horrible, painful deaths from cancers, malaria, AIDS…. But while our fellow travelers on this terrestrial ship–both human and non-human, sentient and non-sentient–suffer, we play God.

The sad part of this is that so much effort is (mis-)spent on looking backwards. Yes, it summons and addresses the existential questions of “who am I” and why am I here”, but in light of all that we are facing in the world, why bother? We ARE here and we can do nothing about what has been; we can only affect the future. Will finding the Higgs Boson bring peace to a troubled world, or open Pandora’s box? Will finding life on Mars save a child’s life here in Tennessee? Will finding water on the moon keep Bangladesh (or closer to home, Manhattan) from becoming the next Atlantis?

While reports emerge that the Arctic ice cover will be gone (at least in the summer months) within 30 to 40 years, billionaire and political dilettante, Steve Forbes, in his infinite arrogance, proclaims, “we can adjust” to rising sea levels caused by a three to six degree Fahrenheit rise in temperature over the next century. Hey, Steve, tell that to the plants that bloom too early, only to be left un-pollinated by the insects that aren’t there to do their jobs. Tell that to the coral reefs that are already bleaching due to a fraction of degree rise in sea temperature. Tell that to the crumbling tundra ecosystem when the permafrost melts and becomes a massive carbon source as microorganisms kick their metabolisms into high gear to degrade the organic matter that had been in deep freeze since before humankind can remember. Tell that to the thousands of species on the brink of extinction due to human activity. Mr. Forbes and his kind look only at numbers with monetary symbols next to them. They don’t understand the fundamental ecological principle that biodiversity brings stability to ecosystems.

The cynic in me wonders if the intellectual community is just alright with human suffering. Like Dickens’ Scrooge parroting the popular Malthusian doctrine of his time, it almost seems that the vast majority of the intelligentsia concurs with the economically elite’s opinion that the poor should just die and “decrease the surplus population.”

Dickens, through his paradoxically jolly ghost of Christmas Present, went on to caution Scrooge of mankind’s greatest foibles. Staring at the apparition of the two miserable children exposed from beneath the Spirit’s robes, Scrooge asked,

“`Spirit, are they yours.’ Scrooge could say no more.

`They are Man’s,’ said the Spirit, looking down upon them. `And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it.’ cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. `Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.’”

I don’t think Dickens meant ignorance of quantum mechanics or particle physics.

Have we learned nothing from what our forebears taught? Why should the profundity of Descarte’s declaration of “je pense, donc je suis” (“I think, therefore I am”) trump “Love thy neighbor?” I would assert that in the case of humankind, perhaps the stronger position is, “I love, therefore I am.” Existence, being – these can be debated by philosophers, of which I am not one. I am only one human who sees need and want and suffering and tries in some small way to make the world a better place. I love this fickle and fragile creation and embrace all that it is. I accept its mysteries, and I am curious about its hidden qualities. But I respect its boundaries. Some things cannot be known, because the laws of nature do not allow it to be known with absolute empirical certainty. How did the universe begin? What sparked life here or elsewhere? Of first causes divine or mundane, these questions can only be answered through the eyes of faith. Whether that faith resides with the natural or the supernatural, well, that lies within the heart of the believer.

Greater meaning to life is achieved through love than through redundant academic pursuit. To lift another from want and despair is greater than finding the smallest subatomic particle. (Like the dog chasing the car, what would the physicist do with it if he caught it?) But by helping others, a chain of good will may be forged, strong and sure, and stretching beyond the moment into the future.

What is this “future”? It is a place, at once, both dim and bright. On this river of time, we are drifting inexorably toward it, yet never quite reaching it. By all current measures, it is our only possible direction. If by looking backward we dim the future (or worse, extinguish it) why would we ever choose to? If by determination and the open heart and helping hand of love we can ensure its brightness, why would we choose not to? Shall we, like Oppenheimer, lament that we have “become death, the destroyer of worlds,” or shall we recast the Bhagavad Gita and exult, “I am become love, the bringer of life!?”

The night is rapidly drawing to its dawning close, and I am reminded of two examples that are relevant to this reflection on the vanity of pride. First, Icarus, joyfully soaring to heights that humankind had never before reached, ignored the limits of his technology, and plunged to his ultimate destruction. Then there is the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. There, humankind banded together to prove to God that they were each and all His equal. Their hubris was remunerated with the sundering of languages. How will ours be?

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