Caught Midway Between Atoms and Galaxies


“In our short century or less, we generally aim to create a comfortable existence within the tiny rooms of our lives. We eat, we sleep, we get jobs, we pay the bills, we have lovers and children. Some of us build cities or make art. But if we have the luxury of true mental freedom, there are larger concerns to be found. Look at the sky. Does space go on forever, to infinity? Or is it finite but without boundary or edge, like the surface of a sphere? Either answer is disturbing, and unfathomable. Where did we come from? We can follow the lives of our parents and grandparents and their parents backward in time, back and back through the generations, until we come to some ancestor ten thousand years in the past whose DNA remains in our body. We can follow the chain of being even further back in time to the first humans, and the first primates, and the one-celled amoebas swimming about in the primordial seas, and the formation of the atmosphere, and the slow condensation of gases to create Earth. It all happened, whether we think about it or not. We quickly realize how limited we are in our experience of the world. What we see and feel with our bodies, caught midway between atoms and galaxies, is but a small swath of the spectrum, a sliver of reality.” -Alan Lightman 

Caught midway between atoms and galaxies we are. The universe is so confusing for most of us that we don’t even want to bother with the big existential questions – we have enough problems. So how can we really believe that anyone who is caught midway between atoms and galaxies can somehow put themselves above all of existence and explain it in totality? Astrophysics rests on that uncertain tenet. And despite Alan Lightman’s momentary glimpse into this shaky scientific grounding, the rest of his essay, “What Came Before the Big Bang?” speaks of the cosmologists who think they are on the verge of explaining it all – all of space and time and reality – who poise themselves like gods of knowledge for the rest of us to marvel at. And somehow all of us believe that these beings caught between atoms and galaxies just like us are actually able to sit in a throne of creation and know all of the cosmos.

Astrophysics made me an anti-realist. The equations of astrophysics hardly describe the truth of the universe, they merely describe what the universe looks like for a being “caught midway between atoms and galaxies.” Equipped with telescopes and equations and calculators, we look out into the cosmos and think that we are able to catch some objective truth of reality. But our animal brains were never intended to decipher photons with strict astrophysical accuracy. Our animal brains didn’t evolve to decipher galactic and atomic realms at all. Our animal brains evolved for us to be keen at survival. But keen enough to understand the workings of all of existence? No – understanding the objective truth of the whole universe has nothing to do with biological survival and thus has nothing to do with brains molded for survival. There is a limit to our science. There is only so much an animal caught in the confusing, mucky middle of existence can really say about what the universe is. Untruth is the condition of our life. Astrophysics is our story of untruth about the cosmos. It is a description more of humanity’s relative, limited, sensory perspective of existence than of the totality of a possibly infinite cosmos. We know we were born from a star in a spiral galaxy and it is amazing that we know that. But for us to say that we know something about the pico second the universe began or the nature of all of an almost undefinable cosmos of a proportion so much bigger than us we can barely fathom it lies on the brink of insanity. But of course I understand the push to dissect the first second of the universe- we want to know our existential narrative and that is why I chose to study astrophysics. But we’re just not smart enough to realize that an ape’s pencil scribblings of equations is not going to unlock all the mysteries of the cosmos. And we’re not going to stop because we’re too proud- we think our intellects are superior enough to know everything. We simply cannot know everything because we are “caught midway between atoms and galaxies”- we do not have an impartial, outside, god-like view of the universe, but alas, we will always think we do (well, at least until the Galactic Empire of aliens enlightens us, of course). 

Indeed, to say any thing about the totality of existence—of space, of time, of all the cosmos—is sheer madness. It’s sheer madness simply because a being caught in the middle of it all—stuck in a shrouded alley of reality—cannot possibly ever have the insight to say something about the everything of existence. Humans trying to say something about the all of the cosmos is like an amoeba trying to say something about the all of the earth. And as firm of an atheist as I am, that is probably the strongest argument of all for some kind of god. Because if none of us can know what is going on in terms of the totality of reality, then any belief about how we are here is, perhaps, on equal footing. There is no knowledge of the whole of reality- so how can we claim that one person’s idea about the whole of reality is more right than another’s? None of us know if our experience of reality is representative of the whole of the universe. Our carpet of gazillions of galaxies that we call the cosmos could be one little odd, unrepresentative pocket of a much wider, weirder universe. The universe could be much stranger and much more complicated than an animal caught between atoms and galaxies could possibly understand.

But it is a beautiful thing that we are all caught in the middle of a mystery. What if each of us was born with a scientific manual telling us exactly how we got here and where the universe came from? What if that manual charted and mapped out every second of the cosmos that led to your birth? If we had all the answers, it would make us indolent, proud, dull. It would prevent the great quest for space, for knowledge, for understanding, for creative vision. Indeed, what value would our lives have at all if we all knew everything? The unknown pushes us further, it drives our lives. Truth of the whole wide universe is not something a human being can have, untruth is our ingenious human condition. 

While there is a limit to what we may know about the universe, there is no limit to our technology, there is no limit to what we can make, what we can build. There is no limit to how far into space we could go. Engineering will ultimately lead us to more knowledge than theoretical science ever will. Moreover, space engineering has the power to make us a space-faring species, which will ultimately determine our survival. And that is why I believe that space engineering is a wiser endeavor than cosmology and theoretical astrophysics.