I used to live adjacent to an old growth forest. The main difference from your run-of-the-mill forest that has been significantly disturbed by humans is that it is undeniably clear that death cannot be isolated anywhere. Trees that ceased to be upright are in various stages of fodder for moss and mushrooms, insects and progeny. Trees that fell millennia ago are now the soil from which currently living trees form leaf, sinew, and bark. The cycle of life is just that, a cycle of life not death. Everything is in a process of transformation from one arrangement to another.
And so it is with life everywhere. A metaphysical profundity underlying spiritual traditions and atheistic naturalism alike. Despite our urges to rage against the dying of our own light, we can be consoled by being temporary vessels, part of a larger cycle in which our energies transform from one arrangement to another.
Our anxiety that death is an abyss, a finality, is just that, anxiety. Even the most facile gander at the bigger picture, at the cycle, reveals the conflict between the selfish desire to persist in this form forever and the grateful appreciation that we were able to ever take this form at all.
Then last night I watched Janna Levin’s NOVA special on black holes. Artistically presented with pleasurable clarity, as with all of her output, I learned some things I did not know. Always ready to assimilate more knowledge of the universe with what I have previously come to understand, I was struck in the first few minutes by the similarity of stars and organisms here on earth.
On earth, organisms are temporary arrangements of energy working against entropy, fighting against dissolution. For a short while a cell or collection of cells transform molecules or other cells into energy to stave off collapse. Without this energy creating the structures of our bodies, we return to the elements of which they are made. That is the dynamic tension of life, a battle that every living thing ultimately loses.
It turns out that stars are also fraught with this dynamic tension. The energy of a bazillion atoms crashing into one another creates more elaborate order – hydrogen to helium to lithium and so on up the periodic table – releasing vast energy exploding outward. But this energy does not just keep expanding away from the core like a miasma of energy cooling as it ripples through space. It is contained, balanced by an equal force. Gravity. Well, not a force, really, as Janna explains, but a curvature in space-time that is a result of the enormous mass of a star. And so, for a period of time, there is a celestial object we call a star that has a finite though fluctuating diameter and mass. Explosions pushing outward, gravity pushing inward, more or less balanced and, for at least one of these stars, providing energy to nearby planets that can be further organized into temporary forms of flagella, frog, fruit, and farmer. All is right in the universe…
Eventually, frogs die, people die, stars die. When stars die it is because gravity wins. The energy provided by its explosions is no longer sufficient to stave off the inward pressure. Ultimately, this collapse results in a singularity – all of the mass that once was the star collapses into an infinitely small point. This is a black hole, where no light escapes, nothing nearby escapes, a relentless vacuum sucking up not just the detritus on the carpet but the whole house, and neighborhood, and continent, and planet.
But it does not stop there. Eventually other things drift by and the black hole sucks them up too. With each addition of mass, it gets bigger and more powerful so it can suck up even more space stuff.
So here is where I have to reconsider this generalization that consoles me about life and the meaning of death, the cycle that seems to govern all battles against entropy. The black hole from a star’s death is cold and selfish, like a Pharaoh being buried with thousands of others who just happened to be in his orbit at the time of his death. I can imagine the voice of a dying star sounding like a petulant narcissist, “well if I have to die then you all have to die too!”
The universe is not an old growth forest.
Damn. Not the dust-to-dust story.
Are carbon-based forms unique or special in the universe some way? Is death really the abyss we all fear it to be and it is just that life on earth obscures that reality? I cringe against such elitist attributions of how special we are, as it is too easily an appeal to the bias of self-centered experience. Everything in the universe is governed by the same atomic and subatomic organization. The peculiarities of carbon do not deviate from general principles of atomic interactions. We do not have one explanation for how things work on earth and another for the heavens.
Nah. Black holes are different but not exempt from universal laws. Perhaps black holes somehow “feed” other aspects of the universe. Newton’s first law, right? Nothing is being destroyed by black holes, just transformed. Into what, for what? Don’t know (yet). I think I’m ok with that.
At some point our sun will collapse and suck up all of these atoms we have cycled through lifetime after lifetime. Perhaps we will collectively rage against this dying of the light, but ultimately, there will be some new arrangement, some different battle against entropy, something as yet unimagined. And it will be beautiful and temporary and tragic and so on as atom by atom we remain perpetually in the middle of the flow.
In the meantime, I will use this tiny bit of warped space-time that envelops the body I think of as mine and enjoy the bodies that come into my orbit.