Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

Hurry! Only so many shopping days left until the world ends

We won't feel it now 'til Christmas, the man at the bar said. Soon, the evenings go back and then that Halloween nonsense. And then, be japes ... are you ready for it?

For what? I asked.

The end of the world, no less, he said. According to those Mayans. It's the 2012 phenomenon which, I'll have you know, comprises a range of eschatological beliefs according to which cataclysmic events will occur on December 21, 2012.

Really, I said, feigning interest.

You see, he continued, this date is regarded as the end-date of a 5,125-year-long cycle in what is called Mesoamerican Long Count calendar. Various astronomical alignments and numerological formulae have been proposed as pertaining to this date, and, Bob's your uncle, it's the end of the world as we know it.

And I left him humming the REM song. When I turned to my Belfast Telegraph the next day the ongoing debate about evolution v. creationism had reared its head again in the Letters page.

Like I don't hold any truck with my friend at the bar and his eschatological beliefs, I don't hold very much truck either with the notion that life as we know it has only been around for about 6,000 years, give or take a lost weekend or two.

However, my jury is still very much out on the argument of 'intelligent design' in that just because I can't get my head around the image of a bearded man sitting on a fleecy cloud for eternity (what a depressing thought - eternity, that is) does not mean, unlike the British evolutionary biologist and author of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, that I am ruling out the notion of a divine originator who, for all I know, may have gone off and forgotten about us (which would explain why a lot of the world appears god-less).

There was a time in recent memory when the sciences held out the hope that some day the great question would be answered - if we can create life in a petri-dish, then surely someday we can explain its origins?

But the other school of thought, one not one with the creationists, has it that, as the universe persists in its expansion, cosmologists in the future will, in fact, continue to understand less.

Calculations by Harvard theorist Avi Loeb suggest that the best time to study the cosmos was actually more than 13 billion years ago, about 500 million years after the Big Bang. The theory proposes that the farther into the future you travel the more information you lose about the universe's origins.

In tandem with this theory is the argument that some of the greatest mysteries of the universe may never be resolved because "they are beyond human comprehension''. That's according to one of the world's greatest astrophysicists, Martin Lord Rees, president of the Royal Society in Britain and Professor of Cosmology at Cambridge University.

According to Lord Rees, a "true, fundamental theory of the universe may (well) exist but could be just too hard for human brains to grasp''. In short, what Martin Rees is saying is: just as a goldfish may be barely aware of the bowl in which it swims, so the complexity of life, and the universe in which we humans swim, may be too much for our brains to handle.

I thought about this as I sat in the harbour the other day, in the grand autumnal light, thinking of the death of a friend - which had me, however momentarily, ponder my own mortality.

The water was gently lapping against the shore, the boats in the harbour white against the grey-blue sky, as I watched a sand ant, the smallest and most insignificant of creatures, make its way across grainy soil. Like our goldfish friend, it appeared oblivious to its surroundings, content enough with getting from here to there, for whatever reason.

And I thought, if Lord Rees is right, surely our inability to understand it all should not take from the joy of cherishing the moment while we are here?

That we exist at all is, in itself, both mystery and miracle.

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