Monday 14 March 2011

To dust you will return

I really think that the BBC have strayed into accidentally religious broadcasting. They have started a Lent series without realising it - Wonders of the Universe.

Last week we started with a programme that was really more suitable to Advent - as we discovered how entropy will cause the eventual end of everything. And then  last night we moved to the Lenten theme that "from dust we came".

Special dust, you could argue. Space dust. Dust from the centre of red giant stars, as gravity crushes hydrogen to helium, to oxygen and carbon - and then the thermonuclear chain reactions eventually blast the component parts of the star into space.

And yet, it's just normal dust.  That's where all the dust comes from, after all, the stars. It's just the stuff we find around the place - especially when Burton forgets to clean behind the armoires. Carbon + Oxygen + Hydrogen + the odd bit of metal - dust. As Elvis Costello remarks, It's just the evidence - it's of no consequence. But dust + water + seed + sunlight = Plant. Plant + water = Animal. Animal + plant + appetite = human being (the animal being optional). Life bootstraps up from dust - and declines to the same. It's just dust, when all's said and done.

And as we dust clumps orbit our Sun, we are tiny specks in the unimaginable voids of space. Just imagine - the speed of light is 299,792,458 m/s. Yet even then it's 8-9 minutes fron the Sun to the Earth. The nearest star is a red dwarf (not the TV programme) about 4 light years away. It's 25 years since Voyager 2 went past Uranus - and still it ploughs on. You may think it's a long way down the road to where the chemist was before it was out-competed by a super-store in the next town - but that's peanuts compared to how far away Voyager 1 and 2 are. And they're not even trying compared to space.

The light of the Sun - and the other radiation we artificially emit from the Earth - takes 25 years to reach the Fomalhaut system.  Which means that on a planet surrounding even one of the closest of our stellar neighbours, the aliens are currently wondering who the father of Michelle Fowler's baby in Eastenders is. You see how far away they are. They're probably walking round with big hair and listening to Chesney Hawkes as well. In 640 years, if there are any inhabitable planets circling Betelgeuse - unlikely, as the star is only 10 million years old - and may already have exploded in any case - they will be wondering how they can vote for the winner of X-factor retrospectively.  And Betelgeuse is still only in our galaxy. You notice how carefully I'm trying not to mention "trillion trillion trillion" stuff here.

And we fight our wars, and strive for a better society, and haggle over 2% on VAT here and 1% off Income Tax there - and all the time, the ticking goes on. It's a long time till the Utter Doom happens - 1 billion year before the earth loses its liquid water; 5 billion until the sun is a red giant and the earth may be swallowed. Somewhere beyond 10100 years, darkness settles. Forever. From cosmic space dust we came, and to the inter-stellar space dust of photons and leptons we return.

But we cling to a strange, specific, illogical belief. The one that says that now matters. Now is special. As the song puts it, yesterday is dead and gone - gone with the other 14 billion years of universal history - and tomorrow's out of sight - along with the trillions of years in the future that lay ahead. But there is a day called "today" that is special. Lovers kiss - and the rest of the universe doesn't matter. Between the satisfying swish of a Slazenger cricket bat, and the yelp from an offending Beaker Person is a moment of anticipation that reverberates across time and space. There are things to do today that we cannot put off till tomorrow. Because - let's face it - the world might end at tea time. Best not to chance it. Today has a point. Today has a meaning. Today is to be grasped - because it's all we've got. Look at how big the universe is - look at how long Time will be. And then take today, because it's what comes to hand.


  1. Very inspiring AE!, it would seem that conciousness is the best stroke of good fortune us insignificant specks of carbon on an insignificant speck of rock get.

    Although if I see one more helicopter shot of Prof. Cox posing on the top of a snowy peak with the sun behind him I might just throw up..

  2. I have to agree with Steve here. The cosmic perspective is all well and good, and seeing the pale blue dot again fills me with strange sadness and awe,so thanks for that, but that somehow misses the point of just how annoying is the creepily child-voiced and baby-faced Cox. Is there to be no challenge to his self-appointment as Archbishop of the Universe?

  3. AE--

    the dust thing seems like tragedy, and i want a romantic story. a bildungsroman, if you will. so when I dispense ashes to the mass on ash wedensday, I don't say 'to dust you shall return.' I say 'God didn't make junk.' Needless to say, I'm not invited to dispense ashes very often by the polity.


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