Physicist Alan Lightman on the Illusion of Absolute Rest
The beautiful and disorienting science of why we are mostly restlessness and empty space.
By Maria Popova
In his timeless elegy for time, T.S. Eliot wrote of “the still point of the turning world” — one of the most beautiful and arresting phrases ever composed in the English language. “Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, / But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, / Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, / Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, / There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”
We are woven of contradictions, few more sundering than the polar pull of this dance — our longing for stillness in a universe of unceasing motion, which the painter Joan Miró captured in the notion he placed at the center of his creative ethos: “motionless movement.”
The paradoxical nature of this dance is what the physicist Alan Lightman, one of the most poetic science writers our civilization has produced, explores in a few passages from Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine (public library) — his lyrical inquiry into why we long for absolutes in a relative world and what gives meaning to our existence.
Reading through the journals of the pioneering Arctic explorer Robert Edwin Peary, who retired on a neighboring island off the coast of Maine in the early twentieth century after discovering the North Pole, or at least what was then believed to be the North Pole — “so simple + common place,” Peary wrote in elated astonishment upon arriving at “the prize of 3 countries, my dream + ambition for 23 years” — Lightman reflects:
I try to imagine the “common place” experience of standing exactly at the pole of the earth (even if Peary was not quite there). I see myself perched on a glistening ball in space spinning about an imaginary axis through its center, and I am standing at the precise point where that axis emerges from the interior and punctures the ice. All other points on this ball, except at the opposite pole, are in motion. But I am still. You could say I am locally at rest. I am at rest relative to the center of the earth. But that center is itself in motion. As I stand here, that center hurtles around its central star at a speed of 65,000 miles per hour, and that central star, in turn, revolves around the center of the galaxy, the Milky Way, at a speed of 500,000 miles per hour. Do I know too much, or too little? I look up into space, as the cave dwellers did, and am transfixed by the infinite. Although I cannot touch it, I feel that I’m there. This resting yet unresting pole is quite a spot for viewing the universe.
This illusion of absolute rest plays out as much on the largest scale as it does on the smallest. Millennia after the ancient Greeks first hypothesized the atom as a perfect and indivisible entity — atomos, Greek for uncuttable — a cascade of discoveries unveiled the true nature of matter, and of us: The atom is not a unit of stuff, but a tiny center of matter swarmed by nearly weightless electrons orbiting at a great distance and a great speed. We are mostly restlessness and empty space.
Lightman frames the ancient conception of matter as a vessel for the illusion of the absolute:
Atoms were the ultimate Oneness of the material world. Perfect in their indivisibility, perfect in their wholeness and indestructibility. Atoms were the embodiment of absolute truth. Atoms, along with stars, were the material icons of the Absolutes.
Atoms prevent us from falling forever into smaller and smaller rooms of reality. When we reach atoms — so the thinking went — the falling stops. We are caught. We are safe. And from there, we begin our journey back up, building the rest of the world.
He contrasts this with the modern understanding of material reality, accelerated by the discovery of the electron in 1897 (the year of the disastrous expedition to the North Pole by air balloon):
The hard nut at the center of each atom, the “atomic nucleus,” is a hundred thousand times smaller than the atom as a whole. To use an analogy, if an atom were the size of Fenway Park, the home stadium of the Boston Red Sox, its dense central nucleus would be the size of a mustard seed, with the electrons gracefully orbiting in the outer bleachers. In fact, 99.9999999999999 percent of the volume of an atom is empty space, except for the haze of nearly weightless electrons. Since we and everything else are made of atoms, we are mostly empty space. That vast emptiness is perhaps the most unsettling consequence of dividing the indivisible.
With an eye to the menagerie of subatomic particles discovered in the century-some since — quarks, pions, kaons, rhos, sigmas, xis — Lightman adds:
Are we falling and falling without end? Are there unlimited infinities on all sides of us, both bigger and smaller?
This question, and its myriad fractal implications reaching into every nook and cranny of existence, is what Lightman explores in the remainder of the wholly fascinating and enchanting Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine. Complement this particular portion with Pico Iyer on stillness and the art of presence, then revisit Lightman on our yearning for permanence in a universe of constant change, the psychology of creative breakthrough in art and science, and his poetic ode to the unknown, illustrated by a self-taught teenage artist in Bangalore.
Published September 19, 2018