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October 2022
 

The Webb is Unraveling 
 

Those of us who aren't God or are only slightly god-like have recently received a boost of omniscience. We can thank our lucky stars, which is now a lot easier than counting them. 

First there was Hubble and now there is the Webb Telescope giving us images that show the staggering structure of the universe. No, “structure” is not staggering enough. The images reveal the Holy-Whatzits! or WTF of the universe. 

It's enough to make the leptons lep right out of your skin. It is all stirring and dazzling. When the dazzle subsides, it is time to think about it. You might want to sit down. Grab some molecular lattice inertially suspended in a stable gravitational field (aka a blanket). 

We all like to make meaning of the world and some trust that the world even means something to itself. Maybe something out there likes us because we mean something to the universe. How do we incorporate the images into whatever meaning we have bestowed on the cosmos? The implications are different depending on where you start. 

Folks who believe that God is watching over us and often intervenes in our lives here on earth might be feeling a little jilted. This is like finding out that your father has 100 billion secret families. Even His omnipotent love and attention must be stretched pretty thin. 

There is another letdown for folks who await the Second Coming. Do the math. Even the most conservative estimate of the number of civilized planets suggests that, if Our Savior made a thirty year stop to save each one, it will be another half a million years at least until our second turn comes around. 

If Calvary led to universal salvation for all sinners everywhere, how could that mean anything to sinners living in a galaxy far, far away? Imagine the reverse. What if the Gospel story took place a billion light-years away? How would you know salvation was available? Even if there was redemption-at-a-distance, the news of redemption would have to be told locally. The message would have to travel the distance. 

Those of us who have had our suspicions delightfully confirmed by the images have a big gulp to swallow too. Think about all the possibly inhabited worlds that are carrying on and getting by just fine without you. Think about all the trouble out there that you can do nothing about. Think about universal rights or anything we call universal. It must be recast as local. Is there freedom out there? You have to imagine it is out there just to believe it is here. Is there any other linear cognition of individual action? Is anyone listening? Do any of those far away places mean anything to anyone? We will never be cognitive of the answer either way. We must come to know another universal substance- meaninglessness. The cosmos is full of it. 

Imagine hopping ten galaxies away, finding something to stand on and then looking back. There is no avoiding the local truth. The earth will get by without you despite some troubles that you can do nothing about. Imagine that you brought along the Webb Telescope. It would likely show the earth as an unformed ring of gravel. It cannot mean anything anymore. 

What does it all mean? To paraphrase Dorothy, if you're looking for meaning, look no farther than your own backyard. It turns out that was not advice. It was a warning. 

Beware the Cosmic Perspective. It will ruin your appetite. It is an omniscience that makes omnipotence meaningless. All meaning is local. We are the meaningers and the meaningees. Are there others out there? What if our only means of contact is our imagination? 

Suddenly, riding on the back of a cosmic turtle seems as good a meaning as any. Something must define the edge of our cognition. It is where meaning falls off. 

What does the universe rest on? It's telescopes all the way down. Perhaps one day we will build a telescope powerful enough to see itself from behind. Such questions reveal the Law of Conservation. All the gravity throughout the universe must be balanced with an equivalent amount of levity. As with energy, the cosmos in total is consistently funny. However, due to the farces of Dark Humor, the distribution of levity can be uneven. That leaves scads of galaxies in competition to be the silliest place in the universe. I may be biased but I'm betting on the Milky Way.  
 

"We start out as star stuff and we end up as compost. Somewhere between, there are moments of Sagen-induced euphoria. Sometimes, like now, on the earth, it's primates. Other times on other worlds it's lizards or insects. The earth might seem like a blazing glow of consciousness but a closer look shows it to be like a sparkler. Scads of short-lived flashes take their own tangent with a vast ocean of emptiness between them. Our awareness barely benefits each other here. What service can we provide for the rest of the universe? Stars are proud of their stuff. It is only when they get too old and break down into common stuff that little micro sparklers like us come to eat everything." 

-from Debbie Downer's ten-part science series 'Compost'. 
 

It may take hundreds of years but our doom could lead to some good in the universe. Our space telescopes have opened a window to a plethora of planets. The relative ease of the discovery suggests that exo-planets might be as plentiful as stars and galaxies. Even if the tiniest fraction have intelligent life that is still a lot of potential customers of our radio and television broadcasts. 

Somewhere out there, the rise of a technological civilization will coincide with the arrival of our transmissions. Those exo-folks will be in for a treat. They will binge on streams of parable and parody as Those Crazy Earthlings skip and dance towards Nature's punishment. Our message? Do not try this at home.


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