By Alan Lightman/The Wall Street Journal/23 February 2014
Three summers ago, my oldest daughter got married. The ceremony took place at a farm in the little town of Wells, in Maine, against the backdrop of rolling green meadows, a white wooden barn, and the sounds of a classical guitar. Each member of the wedding party stepped down a sloping hill towards the chuppah, while the guests sat in simple white chairs bordered by rows of sunflowers. The air was redolent with the smells of maples and grasses and other growing things. Radiant in her white dress, a white dahlia in her hair, my daughter asked to hold my hand as we walked down the aisle.
It was a perfect picture of utter joy, and utter tragedy. Because I wanted my daughter back as she was at age 10, or 20. As we moved together towards that lovely arch that would swallow us all, other scenes flashed through my mind: my daughter in first grade holding a starfish as big as herself, her smile missing a tooth; my daughter on the back of my bicycle as we rode to a river to drop stones in the water; my daughter telling me the day after she had her first period. Now, she was 30. I could see lines in her face.
I don’t know why we long so for permanence, why the fleeting nature of things so disturbs. With futility, we cling to the old wallet long after it has fallen apart. We visit and revisit the old neighborhood where we grew up, searching for the remembered grove of trees and the little fence. We clutch our old photographs. In our churches and synagogues and mosques, we pray to the everlasting and eternal. Yet, in every nook and cranny, nature screams at the top of her lungs that nothing lasts, that it is all passing away. All that we see around us, including our own bodies, is shifting and evaporating and one day will be gone. Where are the one billion people who lived and breathed in the year 1800, only two short centuries ago?
The evidence seems overly clear. In the summer months, mayflies drop by the billions within 24 hours of birth. Drone ants perish in two weeks. Daylilies bloom and then wilt, leaving dead, papery stalks. Forests burn down, replenish themselves, then disappear again. Ancient stone temples and spires flake in the salty air, fracture and fragment, dwindle to spindly nubs, and eventually dissolve into nothing. Coastlines erode and crumble. Glaciers slowly but surely grind down the land.
What about our sun and other stars? Shakespeare’s Caesar says to Cassius: “But I am constant as the northern star, of whose true-fix’d and resting quality there is no fellow in the firmament.” But Caesar was not up on modern astrophysics. The North Star and all stars, including our sun, are consuming their nuclear fuel. After which they will fade into cold embers floating in space or, if massive enough, bow out in a final explosion. Our sun, for example, will last another five billion years before spending its fuel. Then it will expand enormously into a red gaseous sphere, enveloping the earth, go through a serious of convulsions, and finally settle down to a cold lifeless ball. One by one, the stars in the sky will wink out. In the distant future, space will be black.
Yet we cannot accept the nature of things. Just the other day, I had to retire my favorite shoes, a pair of copper colored wing tips that I purchased 30 years ago to wear at a friend’s graduation. For the first few years, all I had to do to keep the shoes looking spiffy was to polish them. Then, the soles began to wear down. Every couple of years, I would take my wing tips to a small shoe repair shop I knew and have new soles installed. The shop was run by three generations of an Italian family. In the early years, the grandfather worked on my shoes. Then he died and his son took over the job. The resoling kept my shoes going another twenty years. My wife begged me to surrender. But I loved those shoes. They reminded me of me in my salad days. Eventually, the upper leather of the shoes became so thin that it cracked and split. I took the shoes back to the shop. The cobbler looked at them, shook his head, and smiled.
Despite all the evidence, we continue to strive for youth and immortality, we continue to cling to the old photographs, we continue to wish that our grown daughters were children again. Every civilization has sought the “elixir of life” – the magical potion that would grant youth and immortality. In China alone, the substance has one thousand names. It is known in Persia, in Tibet, in Iraq, in the aging nations of Europe. Some call it Amrita. Or Aab-i-Hayat. Or Maha Ras. Mansarover. Chasma-i-Kausar. Soma Ras. Dancing Water. Pool of Nectar.
For the religious, there is God and the immortal soul. But for those of us who, like me, do not believe in any divine substance lying outside the material universe, there is one last possibility for something eternal. Recent ideas in physics suggest that our universe may be only one of a staggering number of universes, constantly emerging out of the hazy probabilities of quantum mechanics, existing for a limited period of time like our universe and then passing away. After which new universes would be born, in an endless cycle of birth and demise. Most of these other universes would be very different from ours. Some would have 17 dimensions of space. Some would have planets and stars, like our universe, while some might contain only a diffuse cloud of energy. Some few might harbor life, while most would not be endowed with the special conditions needed for life. Even though we in our universe could have no contact with these other universes, we might consider ourselves part of a super family of universes, a vast cosmic chain of being stretching back into the infinite past and forward to the infinite future. In this way, the tiny flash of our individual lives, the passing of the human generations and the millennia, the fading of our sun, and finally the demise of our entire universe could be given a much larger meaning, a place in an infinite and eternal tapestry of unfolding worlds.