Sunday, September 30, 2012
Eating the Sun
Quid agis, NIP?
I have a deep and abiding love for astronomy. I have for nearly 15 years now, and if I could distill it down to a single reason for why I feel this way about the discipline it could be summed up in three words: Professor James Wysong. Of all the instructors I had while attending Hillsborough Community College for my Associate’s degree, he stands above the rest. Whether it was his anecdotes about Disney World where he worked as a young man or how he made the science of the stars come alive through his interesting and entertaining lectures, I was fascinated by this man and his passion for his subject. As a teacher myself now, I can see why students enjoy educators who are energetic and love their subject matter. Wysong made such an indelible impression on me that to this day if I hear a senior student say s/he will be attending HCC in Brandon I recommend taking one of his classes (and I always suggest astronomy first). This love for astronomy that he instilled in me has only grown over the years and, whether looking up at the night sky or reading a book on the subject, I often fondly reflect on my time spent in his class.
This was certainly the case while I was reading Caleb Scharf’s most recent work, Gravity’s Engines: How Bubble Blowing Black Holes Rule Galaxies, Stars, and Life in the Cosmos. Scharf is the director of the Columbia Astrobiology Center and is a prolific writer on matters concerning the cosmos. His most recent book deals with the new data being discovered about black holes and how they may be instrumental for giving spacetime its particular warp and woof as we know it. Not only did the book force me to reflect on what I had learned from Professor Wysong, it also impressed upon me (even more than usual) how miraculous and amazing it is to be alive on this third planet from a decent sized star in the galactic suburbs of the Milky Way. Even as I type this now I can’t help look out the window to see the sunlight streaking down through the leaves of the trees in the backyard upon which birds are perched and singing to one another. That simple sunlight took eight minutes to arrive from our neighborhood star, a wonder of heat and pressure creating helium through the fusion of hydrogen molecules yielding a mind-boggling amount of energy that races across 93 million miles of space and comes slamming into the surface of the Earth. And without it there would be no life. Every single thing you see on this planet, NIP, would not be here if it were not for the sun.
If you know me personally, you know that I can come off as somewhat of a weirdo. If you have never met me, then you might have deduced the same thing if you’ve read enough of these letters. My new students this year probably thought the very same thing on the first day of school when I explained that I eat an organic peanut butter and tupelo honey on whole wheat bread sandwich every day. Incredulous, they asked me how I could eat the same thing every day; I explained that we all eat the same thing every day because we are, in essence, eating the sun. The sun is directly responsible for all life on Earth. Those photons of light grow the wheat in the fields, the peanuts in the ground, the flowers that the bees pollinate to make the honey, and so forth. No matter what they eat, I told them, it is simply energy that has been converted to some other form that we ingest to keep our own lives sustained.
As I’ve mentioned in past letters, I feel the biggest reason I’ve been able to change my perspective on life so much has a great deal to do with trying to cultivate five crucial qualities in my life: love, compassion, gratitude, generosity, and patience. Though I never intentionally meant to put that characteristic of gratitude in the middle, it’s interesting that it is. I think it fits well in the center because to have gratitude for all things in our lives keeps us grounded and tethered to all of existence and helps us appreciate all of the beauty and bounty in our lives. While I never was one to say “grace” before meals out of religious sentiment when I was younger, I feel that I do now yet in a different way. I typically begin each meal with three deep breaths. On the first, I remind myself that I am grateful for all of life holistically, from the sun that beams its way through space to our planet to the food that is grown because of it. On the second inhalation I reflect on all of the people who made the meal possible, from the farmers who harvested the wheat to the bakers who made the bread—even the cashier at the grocery store who allowed me to take it home, every single person in that chain of being is important because without them my food would not be possible. On the final breath I am grateful for the food itself, which—in another beatific miracle of nature—will be converted by my digestive system into energy that will sustain my body, mind, and spirit. I cannot even begin to describe the rapture I feel while eating my meals now because of the simple reflection of gratitude that comes beforehand.
Carl Sagan once said in order to make an apple pie you first have to create the universe. He was a brilliant astronomer/cosmologist and this insight is so true yet often overlooked. As human beings, we have a tendency to focus on the small matters of our lives rather than the grandeur of life itself. This isn’t to belittle the small matters of our lives, but to recognize that they are not of consequence when it comes to the big picture. We are all part of a miraculous chain of being, and whether we choose to acknowledge or ignore that fact can make all the difference in how we view ourselves and our contribution to the miracle of life that surrounds us at all times. Though we are only specks of cosmic dust in the 15 billion light year diameter of the known/observable universe, we are part of an amazingly complex web of life on this planet. Perhaps if we were to recognize this fact on a daily basis we might be more willing to appreciate others as part of the same miracle. I cannot begin to explain how being grateful for all of life has changed me, but it has. I owe a debt of gratitude to many, many people, from my family and friends, to my students and teachers, especially teachers like Professor Wysong who were instrumental in shaping my appreciation and thinking concerning the mysteries of the universe. I am also grateful for you, NIP. Without you I’d have no real reason to write these letters. It is my ardent hope that this one and others have brought you some measure of solace and inspiration. Be grateful for life and your particular place in it. Whether you realize it or not, you play a pivotal role in the miracle that surrounds you.
If you have some time and skies are clear tonight, go do a little stargazing, NIP.
P.S. - Mentioning Carl Sagan made me think of an animated piece a student shared with me last year. I think it puts the miracle of life on this planet into perspective quite nicely. Hope you enjoy it, NIP.