An Extraordinarily Ordinary Life

I read and re-read and read out this paragraph in the book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions by Stephen Hawking.

“I have led an extraordinary life on this life on this planet, while at the same time traveling across the universe by using my mind and the laws of physics. I have been to the furthest reaches of our galaxy, travelled back into a black hole and gone back to the beginning of time. On Earth, I have experienced highs and lows, turbulence and peace, success and suffering. I have been rich and poor, I have been able-bodied and disabled. I have been praised and criticized, but never ignored. I have been enormously privileged, through my work, in being able to contribute to our understanding of the universe. But it would be an empty universe indeed if it were not one the people I love, and who love me. Without them, the wonder of it all would be lost on me.”

This is one of the passages in the book by Stephen Hawking, Brief Answers to the Big Questions. The title is no empty boast, he really does take a stab at the big questions with the simplest language. The book’s forewords, and epilogue themselves make fascinating reading: A foreword by Eddie Redmayne who played Stephen Hawking in the movie based on his life, and Kip Thorne who worked with him at Caltech and one of the foremost players in the detection of gravitational waves (LIGO)

Related: Philosophers & Tinkerers

brief_answers

Some questions:

  • Is there a God?
  • Is there other intelligent life in the Universe?
  • Will we survive on Earth?

He touches upon climate change (Related: A Planet of Wizards & Prophets), and whether we have any option but to colonize space. It is written in layman’s terms, which suited me quite well.

Regular readers know how much I enjoy looking up at the night skies. It is the time I come closest to stoicism. I shiver and wonder what is out there among the great distances. I happily contemplate on the vast empty distances between the stars. I ponder on time and how we are seeing things that are no longer exactly like that. How a serendipitous sequence of events enabled us to be there to contemplate this beautiful universe.

milky_way_shree
Picture taken by a Friend – an amazing photographer

I marvel at our insignificance, I genuinely enjoy riding the thought sails through the night skies, and I look out the magic of it every chance I get. It is one of those times when I am in love with Being.

star_trails
Star Trails of the Milky Way Galaxy – Pic taken by my friend who is an amazing photographer among other things.

One of my friends on a nightly stroll with me once teased me that I will become a star when I pass on, and I laughed heartily. Her tone reminded me of how spoiled I am by my friends who indulgently put up with me as I moon about flowers, hills and stars.

It is extraordinary indeed that I should have read Brief Answers to the Big Questions so closely after I read this particularly fetching poem by Walt Whitman.

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer – By Walt Whitman
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

It is even rarer that I find the perfect illustration to go along with it. But Rob Gonsalves in the book, Imagine A World is the perfect one (Related: A Touch of the Eternal):

journey_to_stars

To me, the ability to enjoy these simple pleasures in an ordinary life constitutes an extraordinary one.

Sailing The Solar Winds

“So, you are saying that we have no method of seeing the images on the CD now?”

“Not without a Windows machine. We have an external CD drive that we can mount, but if you do not have a Windows machine, you cannot install the software to load those particular images – yes.”

The husband looked sheepish. He is the tech enthusiast between the pair of us – a mellow one compared to some of our friends, I will grant him that. But I felt sorry for the fellow as he said we will not be able to install and retrieve the images on the disk. He is the one who feels elated when a new breakthrough happens that will disrupt storage as we know it, and all that lark.

I was holding a CD that contained some images that could be retrieved by the software also on the CD. I had been given the disc in 2017, and I was attempting to see the images in 2017. I could not. I live in a home spotted freely with software engineers. We trip over cables, hunt for laptops and so on.

I looked at the CD disc in my hand, and burst out laughing.

To think that we sent the Arecibo message to a star cluster some 25,000 light years away hoping that extra terrestrial life will receive and interpret it. Carl Sagan and an impressive set of folks came up with a message that showed humans, a double helix, numbers, elements and so much more. Read all about it here:

Arecibo Message

Arecibo_message.svg
Image attribution: By Arne Nordmann (norro) – Own drawing, 2005, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=365130

How confident we are that if intelligent beings do receive some radio messages, they will have the technology to extract it in the format we sent it to them in forty years ago. Just for fun, I’d like to see what would happen if that dratted message were to flop back onto Earth because of a series of mis-bumps along the way. We would first drive ourselves into a tizzy that beings of another planet reached out to us, and then I am not sure we would be able extract our own message.

I was reading an article recently about human beings sending a probe to our nearest galactic neighbor, Alpha Centauri.

$100-Million Plan Will Send Probes to the Nearest Star

The article talks about using “light sails” to ride those beams to other stars. I quote:

Although they have no mass, the photons in a sunbeam do carry momentum. In sufficient numbers they can push objects around in the vacuum of space. Bounce enough photons off a large reflective spacecraft and light alone can continuously accelerate it without the need for any onboard fuel, much like a sailboat catching a ride on the wind. Such spacecraft are called “solar sails.” This elegant idea goes back more than 400 years, to the German astronomer Johannes Kepler, who noted that a wind seemed to blow comet tails away from the sun, and that it might someday be harnessed to push a celestial vessel through the “heavenly air.”

The explanation makes my head swim somewhat. They plan to send the probe that will zoom past Alpha Centauri in 20 years time, and hope to see images of an earth-like planet orbiting the star.

But hopefully we catch something worth catching, since as Stephen Hawking so elegantly put it:

Stephen Hawking explained his support for the project as less about science and more about survival. “Earth is a wonderful place, but it might not last forever,” Hawking says. “Sooner or later, we must look to the stars. Breakthrough Starshot is a very exciting first step on that journey.”

Now what took me on this interstellar, intergalactic quest you ask me. This is where you see me scratching my head, looking goofy, and mumbling something about googling on how to see images in a CD that I hold in my hand.

cd

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