Monday, November 19, 2012

The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos: Humanity and the New Story

Book Review: The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos: Humanity and the New Story
by Brian Swimme (Orbis Books 1996)

This is a neat book that explores cosmology in terms of ‘embodying cosmological awareness’. Swimme sees the event of our knowing through science of the origin of the universe and the center of the universe approximately 15 billion light years away and yet also everywhere, as a monumental achievement 4 million years in the making – since we became thinking primates. The author notes that:

“Science is not the same as cosmology, even when a cosmology is deeply informed by science. Cosmology is the story of the birth, development, and destiny of the universe, told with the aim of assisting humans in their task of identifying their roles within the great drama.”

The author notes that all the science that went into our discovery of the birthplace of the universe was several million years in the making and represents a milestone in man’s awareness of origin and possible fate. He notes that among animals or early humanoids the awareness of being aware, ie. conscious self-awareness, had a beginning. Our cosmological awareness is an extension of that, being aware of our place in the universe.

Cosmology was/is acted out in indigenous societies through creation myths. It can be a melding of science and religion. Science provides the facts while religion (or philosophy) involves the quest for meaning and values. Recently I heard a science news story about the space probe about to break free of the gravity or influence of the solar system – I think this means going beyond the orbit of the sun. Although it was unclear if and when this would occur it too would be a milestone of sorts where our human influence would extend beyond the influence of the sun, the source of power for us – although the physicality of the probe is still a manifestation of the sun’s energy.

The author suggests that the old tales, chants, creation stories, and sky gazing has given way in modern times to the cult of consumerism where we are bombarded with advertisements and commerciality. He says that consumerism serves to train us about our place in the world in a similar way that cosmology did in the past. I am not sure if I agree or even if I follow the arguments in this part of the book though later he does tie it to a misconception of materiality.

Early cosmologies were of an earth-centered universe. This is the apparent truth that was once considered to be obvious truth. Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus in 1543 proved that this was not the case and the age of the sun-centered universe began. This was a new paradigm indeed and broke with tradition and common sense.

Swimme suggests an exercise for embodying the earth’s and other planet’s relationships to the sun. Since we assume the sun is going down even when we know it is really just the earth rotating away from the sun, he suggest a way to embody the knowledge. By going out just before sunset and noting Venus on the horizon and preferably another planet as well – Jupiter maybe. He suggests simply observing the sunset and planetary motions in this light, mentally noting their distances from the sun, ie. earth 93 million miles, Venus 65 million miles, and Jupiter 480 million miles. He also suggest taking a child along, perhaps to make the occasion into a way of sharing lore. We are people on a planet but we are also part of a planet circling a star. With clear skies this meditation is always available at dawn and dusk. The sun holds us with its gravity. It is a million times larger than the vast earth.

“Cosmology is a wisdom tradition drawing upon not just science but religion and art and philosophy. Its principal aim is not the gathering of facts and theories but the transformation of the human. …… science aims at an understanding of the Earth’s rotational and revolutionary movements around the sun, while cosmology aims at embedding a human being in the numinous dynamics of our solar system.”

Swimme notes that there can be an aesthetic or even an ecstatic quality to enhanced understanding of cosmology. With cosmology one is delving into the mysteries of the universe and one’s own being. He suggests that early cultures initiated their young into the prevailing worldview with various rites of passage and that we may do this today with cosmological education.

Even though we now know that the sun is one of billions of stars and is not the center of the universe it is still the center of our solar system. Each second the sun transforms 4 million tons of itself into light. This light brings energy to our planet and is the root energy of all energy on and in the earth. Our flaring star feeds us all that we imbibe. It is what we are – the eaters of the sun energy. The author seems to long for a cosmological nature mysticism that perhaps has healing abilities like the mythologies of old that can yet be seen as archetypal psychological forces. I think he is suggesting that our newer understandings of the nature of the universe can add to that mythological and psychological healing and integration. Certainly enshrining the scientific narrative of cosmology history can induce a state of wonder and affect us psychologically. Contemplating the story, the history, and the details of the sun’s gift of energy and our close relationship to the sun does seem a worthwhile endeavor.  The sun’s bestowal of energy can be seen as the generosity of the universe. Perhaps waking up and greeting the sunrise can be a form of cosmological therapy. Perhaps it was to those past cultures who have done so but now we have so much more scientific knowledge of the mechanisms of the solar system. Mentally relating the sun’s generosity to our own generosity can even be a seen as a practice that extends as a lineage from the sun.

The next suggested meditation is to contemplate the galaxy by gazing on the Milky Way. The Milky Way can be pictured as an egg in a frying pan or as Swimme suggests, a manta ray – with a flattened body and a bulge in the center. We are lucky to live far enough out in the country where we can walk outside on any clear night and contemplate the Milky Way – yet I don’t do it in any detail. This book perhaps gives a deeper dimension to stargazing and to learning the map of the heavens. Just as we travel through the galaxy with our solar system so too do we travel through the universe with our galaxy. The earth is two thirds of the way out from the center of the Milky Way along one of the long thin spiral arms. The ancients did not have any of this cosmological knowledge. Swimme suggests that we can reconfigure our whole idea of up and down as that is just a notion relative the earth, our nearest and strongest gravitational partner. Just as the earth holds us, the sun holds the earth and the galaxy holds the sun. The meditation is to contemplate the Milky Way by laying on your back and imagine that the stars are not up but down and note any physical, emotional, or mental sensations encountered. This is a way to become a part of the Milky Way contemplating itself. Our solar system moves through the Milky Way at 180 miles per second. Another contemplation involves finding the constellation Sagittarius. This is the center of the Milky Way. I have done this as someone pointed it out to me but would have trouble finding it on my own. This galactic center is about 30,000 light-years away – so the light from that region that we see now left there 30,000 years ago! Indeed it is an amazing universe. Swimme gives the context of the earth 30,000 yrs ago – with wooly mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, and paleo-Indians. Again he suggests having children along to make the cosmological meditation a multi-generational experience. Another meditation given is to look upon the Andromeda galaxy approximately 2.5 million light-years away. He says a faint spiral can be seen with binoculars and a faint blur of light can even be detected with the naked eye. This is another galaxy with hundreds of billions of its own stars. When that light left that galaxy early humanoids were first discovering the use of tools. The use of those tools and ever newer ones would eventually develop to the point where we can know these things about the universe that we now know. The newer tools include our own arts and languages as well as telescopes and mathematics. Also of note is that the vastness of the human journey in time can be compared to the vast distances of the galaxies in space. The Milky Way and Andromeda pinwheel about one another and both have satellite galaxies. The Magellanic Clouds contain the satellite galaxies of the Milky Way. All these galaxies together are referred to as the Local Group. Yet this Local Group is satellite to another group of galaxies called the Virgo Cluster. This is a massive group of around a thousand galaxies about 53 million light-years away. And there are many more of these superclusters of galaxies.  

The age of the universe is predicted to be between 10 and 20 billion years old and 15 billion years is just a center guess. That also means that the center or origin point of the universe is approximately 15 billion light-years away. Astronomer Edwin Hubble and the famed Albert Einstein were key to this discovery of the origin center and expansion of the universe. Swimme notes that our astronomical instruments detect and decipher the “news” that the universe brings us. Hubble’s astronomical observations confirmed Einstein’s original hypothesis. But there is more to this. He also discovered that the further away from one another they are the faster the galaxies move away from each other. It is said that the universe began as a sextillion-ton pin-prick singularity that burst forth in a Big Bang. This idea is not so far away from the creation stories of ancient peoples who see the universe as arising from the “Cosmic Egg”. Swimme suggests that this was an intuitive knowing that accords with the Big Bang Theory. Yet there is more. The center of the universe 15 billion light-years away is true in terms if the light from the beginning of time. In terms of the expansion of galaxies we are at the center of the universe as it expands away from us in every direction. Hubble also discovered this great paradox which is termed the Omnicentric Universe. Every point in the universe is the center of the universe. This is a great leap from the Newtonian paradigm as is Einstein’s space-time notions and the paradoxes of quantum physics. But as Swimme notes the universe is not seen as expanding into pre-existing space but can be seen as expanding the boundary of space-time, the space-time that began at the beginning of this universe.

Next Swimme explores the notion of the “Quantum Foam”. As a way to understand the nature of the universe the idea of a vacuum is imagined where all particles to a smaller and smaller degree are removed. Yet when this is investigated it is found that particles appear out of nowhere “foaming into existence.” Usually the particles erupt in pairs which nearly instantaneously annihilate each other. The pairs are electron and positrons or protons and anti-protons which may contain photons. Apparently this creative and destructive process occurs in every part of the universe. This “space-time foam” is considered to be the ground, or basis, for the universe. This is another paradoxical situation that seems to be beyond the limits of reductionistic materialism. We have come to understand that all matter is composed of the same atomic/sub-atomic framework. But the atoms and subatomic particles are not the reality itself – they only arise from the reality. What he is getting at is that material “stuff” is not the foundation of the universe. We and the world are not really made of atoms as building blocks – it is just a convenient way to explain things and chemical relationships. This he suggest may be a basis for our affair with materialism and subsequent consumerism. This is a similar notion to that of Industrial Society arising out of Newtonian physics as many have suggested.

Next we come to an investigation of the nature of this space-time foam:

“The true significance of the study of the quantum vacuum is the new understanding it provides concerning the reality of the nonvisible. I say nonvisible rather than invisible, for many things are “invisible” to us and yet are capable of being seen. Individual atoms are too small for the unassisted human eyesight to detect but such atoms can be seen if they are magnified sufficiently. The nonvisible, on the other hand, is that which can never be seen, because it is neither a material thing nor an energy constellation. In addition, the nonvisible world’s nature differs so radically from the material world that it cannot even be pictured. It is both nonvisible and nonvisualizable. Even so, it is profoundly real and profoundly powerful. The appropriation of the new cosmology depends upon an understanding of the reality and power of the nonvisible and nonmaterial realm.”

This nonvisible world is depicted mathematically and includes notions such as possibility-waves that can travel both ways in time. Swimme explores both scientific and theological hints of this fundamental level of reality but notes that as a cosmological idea it is neither strictly scientific nor religious. He likes the term “All-Nourishing Abyss” as a way to describe this ocean of potentiality from which all things rise and into to which all things fall. It is similar to but perhaps slightly different than Ervin Laszlo’s idea of the “Akashic Field” though I think they point to the same thing perhaps described slightly differently as Laszlo’s Akashic Field is described in terms of information. This accords with the observation that matter is mostly empty space. I still remember that physics class when the instructor had us imagine a football field with a penny at one end. The penny represented the nucleus of the atom with protons and/or neutrons. At the other end of the field would be the first level of electrons, even smaller in size. In between and all around is simply empty space. I suppose imagining such an analogy is a way of embodying awareness of the nature of the subatomic level of reality. This all-nourishing abyss pervades every bit of the universe. I suppose it is reality itself (as is everything that appears according to the mahasiddha Manibhadra). Swimme uses the idea of the particle pairs annihilating into the abyss with new pairs arising out of it – to suggest that the light of the Moon is in fact the light of the Moon rather than the light of the Sun reflected off of the Moon – for the photons of the light are continually absorbing into and reappearing out of the quantum foam – the sunlight goes to the moon and the reappearing moonlight comes to us (if I understand correctly). In this sense the universe is continually dying and being reborn and in the omnicentric sense every point is the origin and center of it.

The next section returns again to Einstein and how he worked and contemplated the mysteries of the universe – he being a sort of archetype, a breakthrough of humankind’s understanding of the universe. Like us, he was a piece of the Milky Way contemplating itself. Einstein perhaps had the ability to open up and let the universal knowledge open up within him as it was passing through. He even said that he often relied on imagination. Swimme notes an aphorism of a tribe of South American Indians: that to become human “one must make room in oneself for the immensities of the universe” as Einstein seemed to be able to do.

The center of the cosmos is each event in the cosmos. Each person lives in the center of the cosmos. Science is one of the careful and detailed methods by which the human mind came to grasp the fact of the universe’s beginning, but the actual origin and birthplace is not a scientific idea; the actual origin of the universe is where you live your life.”

“The consciousness that learns it is at the origin point of the universe is itself an origin of the universe. The awareness that bubbles up each moment that we identify as ourselves is rooted in the originating activity of the universe. We are all of us arising together at the center of the cosmos.”  

This is a mind-boggling foray into the notion of “embodying cosmological awareness.” This small book packs a wallop in terms of implications. With these ideas we can “reorient” ourselves to some extent in relation to the universe, the container that contains us, yet we are inseparable from it.


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