From The Big Picture by Sean Carroll
“The universe is not a miracle. It simply is, unguided and unsustained, manifesting the patterns
of nature with scrupulous regularity. Over billions of years it has evolved naturally, from a state
of low entropy toward increasing complexity, and it will eventually wind down to a featureless
We are the miracle, we human beings. Not a break-the-laws-of-physics kind of miracle… It is
wondrous and amazing how such complex, aware, creative, caring creatures could have arisen
in perfect accordance with those laws. Our lives are finite, unpredictable, and immeasurably
precious. Our emergence has brought meaning and mattering into the world.”
Tao Te Ching 1
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not eh eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of 10,000 things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring. One sees the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
This appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.
Some 20 years ago I was working as a newspaper science writer when I had a chance to
visit the headquarters for the Hubble Space Telescope in Maryland. This was shortly after
astronauts in a space shuttle flight had corrected what you may recall were the initial fuzzy
optics of the telescope.
Scientists had organized media tours of the headquarters to show off just how well the
repair had worked. And I have to say that the images they showed us were breath-taking –
brilliant nebulae left over from supernova explosions, columns of super-hot gases that were
nurseries of stars, and, maybe most amazing: the Deep Field image.
This was created by focusing the telescope for 10 days on a spot of what appeared to be
empty sky. But the image they got was not empty: It was covered with hundreds of points of
light, each a galaxy containing hundreds of billions of stars. We have a large photo of that image
here, and nearly every time I pass it I stare in astonishment. It is one thing to hear people talk
about the vastness of the universe, and another to have it splashed in front of you.
I had a similar reaction in February earlier this year. Astronomers announced that for the
first time they had detected . . . gravity waves. Wow, right? OK, how about this: the waves
came from the collision of two black holes some 1.3 billion light years away. No? Well, get this:
the energy generated by their collision equaled the brightness of a billion trillion suns, an
amount greater than that generated by all the stars in the observable universe at that time.
And the scientists who made this discovery couldn’t even see it, but in a sense they could
hear it. If you translated the gravity waves that they detected to sound waves, it would sound
something like this . . . when the black holes collided – I mean, what?
OK, I admit that it’s hard to make space in our minds for this kind of news. Amid the car
wrecks, political back and forth, common graft and stories of foreign wars, the announcement
of gravity waves sails in as if it were, when in fact it is, from outer space. But I want to propose
that it’s something that we in this religious community might attend to, because I think it also
speaks to and helps informs a sense of spirituality that invites us into wonder and even a sense
of the sacred.
First, we need to get a feeling for the context of all this. So, let’s begin by orienting
ourselves to this idea of gravity. Simple enough – gravity is what keeps me from floating away,
right? The equations that help us calculate the effect of gravity are complicated, sure, but we
get the idea. Isaac Newton pretty much figured it out 300 years ago: The laws that govern the
apple falling on my head also govern the planets spinning in space. Pretty elegant.
But for all that, even Newton wasn’t sure just what gravity was. It seemed like it must be a
kind of force that things exert, but he couldn’t take it much further than that. And that didn’t
really matter – until it did.
Astronomers using Newton’s formulas came upon errors in calculating the orbits of some
planets. Again, no big deal, but it was the nagging thread that led people like Albert Einstein to
work on the issue.
Einstein had already revolutionized physics by showing that space and time were not
separate, fixed phenomena: They were all dimensions of an integrated fabric that we
experience differently relative to where we are & the speed at which we’re moving.
This model, he found, also implies that gravity is not a force that things exert; it is an effect
of their presence in space-time. Things that have mass create a field of gravity by distorting this
fabric of space-time, creating, as it were, a dimple or pocket in the fabric.
This is a very different image from now things looked before. We see that space-time can
be pushed & stretched. And every once in a while there are great disturbances: stars explode,
or collide. Like an earthquake they generate vibrations that ripple through space-time:
At least, that was the theory. Until now, nobody knew. The problem is that as important as
it may be to us, gravity is actually a weak force, and gravity waves hard to detect. But
astronomers figured that maybe if the disturbance was strong, they might detect it.
Enter the Laser Interferometer Gravity-Wave Observatory: It’s made of lasers that are
pointed at mirrors set at right angles to each other in a total vacuum. There are two of them: in
Washington state and Louisiana. Theory says that when gravity waves pass through they should
make the tunnels & mirrors squeeze and stretch just a little, and their goal was to look for those
It’s hard to describe just how hard this is to do. Because gravity waves are so weak, they
were looking to detect a variation of one ten-thousandth the diameter of a proton: A distance
that seems unimaginably small. In any event, the astronomers figured that the only events they
could hope to observe would have to be big ones, like the collision of neutron stars.
They also thought they would look for evidence of the collision of black holes. They weren’t
really sure if black holes even could collide. There were different theoretical reasons why they
might or might not. But it turns out they could.
Last September 14, just seven milliseconds (that’s seven thousands of a second) after LIGO
was turned on they got a signal, and it was a whopper. As I said, they calculated that it was
from an event 1.3 billion years ago when two black holes collided.
They weren’t especially large, as black holes go – one was about 36 times the mass of the
sun; the other 29. Together they created a new black hole of 62 solar masses.
So, if you do the math you see that there were three solar masses missing. Where did they
go? Well, remember Einstein’s famous formula – E=mc2? It means you can convert mass into
energy – it’s what’s at the heart of atomic bombs. So, it doesn’t take a lot of mass to create a
lot of energy. Generally it takes about 10 pounds of plutonium or 30 pounds of uranium to
make a bomb. So, imagine the effect of a bomb that annihilated material equaling three times
that of the mass of the sun.
Now that we know that LIGO works scientists are working to fine-tune it. They figure there
should be a sea of gravity waves out there. What will we learn? Among other things we may get
insight into our origin, the Big Bang.
Consider that up to now all the astronomy has involved observation using what we call
electromagnetic radiation – light, radio, infrared, ultraviolent, even x-rays. They have taken
scientists far back in time, but there appears to be a limit in the early universe that we can’t see
past. Gravity waves could be a way to look back further. As one scientist put it, “Finally
astronomy grew ears. We never had ears before.”
So, you see? Pretty neat, huh?
Now, to the religious part of this. First, let’s step back and reflect on what we’ve learned:
for many centuries people believed that ultimate knowledge about the nature of universe was
unavailable to us. Though science gave us more and more information, there was only so much
it could do, and that we would need help from supernatural sources.
Remember that Isaac Newton felt that for all he had learned, there was so much more to
be know. He said: “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have
been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a
smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all
undiscovered before me.”
So, he turned to other pursuits, dabbling in the occult, biblical prophecy and alchemy. Long
before JK Rowling’s Harry Potter set off to look for the philosopher’s stone, Newton made it his
quest, though, unlike Voldemort, his goal was not immortality, but to turn base metals into
This is something that we still struggle with today: can we trust what the world teaches us?
LIGO results provide one more brick in the claim that we can. We need not posit forces or
influences outside of the world: it’s all here.
Still, we are left with immense uncertainty. The structures of science are great for helping
us describe the world, but not so great in guiding our lives. When we look for meaning in our
lives, we want to know more than what it is made of. We want to know what we are to make
While apples are falling and black holes are colliding, we are left with these brief lives of
ours that are no more than a whisper in the eternity of spacetime.
I came upon a way to address this recently that intrigued me. It’s in a book by the physicist
Sean Carroll called The Big Picture. He reviews many of the discoveries in the last century or so
that have transformed what we know about the world. Even as these learnings show us how
small our part in the Universe is, he says, we are also redeemed by our growing capacity to
comprehend it and to give it meaning.
Yes. What we have learned is mind-blowing, but it also teaches us that we are of this
universe, is our home, a place shot through with beauty, a place where we are learning to see
ourselves and our fellows as precious in our own right.
It’s a perspective that Carroll describes as “poetic naturalism.” It is naturalist, since it says
that this world is the only world, and that the things of our experience behave according to
laws that we can learn, and that the only reliable way to learn about things is to observe them.
And yet it is also poetic, in that it says there are many distinctive, coequal ways of talking
about the world. We use different words, different frames, and that’s OK. There is room for
metaphor and imagery that reaches beyond and illuminates more down-to-earth talk.
And so, he says, in each moment we look for the way of talking, the frame that best suits
our task. He borrows a felicitous phrase from the poet Muriel Rukeyeser: Universe, she says. is
made of stories, not atoms.
The world is what it is, but we gain insight by talking about it – telling its story – in different
ways. There are different levels of telling stories about the world – subatomic, molecular,
ecological. But even more – there are stories centered in ethics, compassion, beauty. And all
are significant: all, in their own way, real.
The words of Robert T. Weston that we read earlier offer an example of how we might do
this. He weaves together many stories, from the big bang and formation of stars, planets, to the
evolution of life from the sea to the land, to our own emergence: eyes to behold, throats to
sing, mates to love. And then he brings it all together in one brief summary: “This is the wonder
of time, the marvel of space; Out of stars swung Earth, life upon earth rose to love.”
No one level of story can claim primary importance. They are interwoven, one with the
other. They are all equal dimensions of how things are. It’s part of the learning that we receive
from the Tao that we heard earlier, which is, after all, just another story.
The Tao that can be told, that story, is not the eternal Tao. There are many different
dimensions that seem to compete, yet the competition is an illusion. There is only one truth –
the unity of all things. And each new window we open offers us a fresh perspective on it.
So, after centuries of the eye, is it the age of the ear? After centuries of self-seeking, can
we look forward to an age of compassion? How might we tell that story?
Look to the starry sky, and as vast and distant as it all is it is our place, it is our context. As
Carl Sagan and then Joni Mitchell said, we are stardust; we are golden, and we’ve got to get
ourselves back to the garden: another story that tells us something about ourselves, and about
how, as Sean Carroll says, we have brought meaning and mattering into the world.
Part of what discoveries like LIGO give us is a profound spiritual gift. It teaches us to value
the world around us, to, as Mary Oliver puts it, hold it against our bones knowing our own lives
depend on it, and to name as sacred that which upholds and sustains it.