In The Beginning . . .

Milky WayThis week, there was a breakthrough in the study of the very early Universe.  From observations conducted at the South Pole, scientists obtained the first hard evidence of the theory of “inflation,” which holds that the Universe experienced a period of faster-than-light expansion in its first micro-second, about 14 billion years ago.  This has major implications for everything we know of the Universe today – and even increases the likelihood that our Universe is one of many in a mind-bending Multi-verse.  There’s a more cogent and complete description of things in this Times article.

I will not claim full comprehension of this subject.  I will not even claim partial comprehension.  Frankly, I can barely understand what I wrote in the paragraph above.

But it is evident from the really excited reactions of the physicists and cosmologists quoted in the Times piece that this is a VERY BIG DEAL, like a one-of-the-biggest-discoveries-ever deal.

As an admitted sci-fi nerd, who waged a daily – and generally losing – battle with my parents over permission to watch reruns of Star Trek on Channel 11 during the dinner hour, I can’t resist this sort of news.  And I am having fun introducing my kids to the new version of Cosmos.  (Jeremy seems semi-interested.  Owen, not so much.)

But I also have a strange set of mixed feelings.  On the one hand, it is genuinely awe-inspiring that human beings are capable of grasping these hidden truths about the nature of existence.  There is nothing about these theoretical insights that connects to the normal scale of human intuition or the senses through which we experience the world – it’s sheer force of intellect rising above our limitations.  And just think of the knowledge that had to be assembled, layer upon layer, year after year, shared across generations, to make such discoveries possible.

On the other hand, how strange it is that the greatest discoveries are now comprehensible only to the tiniest fraction of humanity.  Discover a new continent – that we can all understand.  Cure polio – we all breathe a sigh of relief.  Land a man on the moon – and every eye is glued to the television set.  But the outer limits of knowledge are so distant now that these monumental achievements pass almost unnoticed, swallowed up in the daily stream of news that, by comparison, is less than trivial.  Sad in a way.

Well, at least this discovery had prompted me to add a new category to my web-posts called “Neat Stuff.”  I’ll try to strike a miniscule little blow for more attention where attention is deserved.