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The Music of the Spheres- John Hunt Reflects on the Opening of the Rocco L. Martino Innovation Centre

By John Hunt           

The wedding. The innovative, razor-sharp, “cutting edge” anticipated will be, a dramatic continuation of the perennial attempt by the human race, from the earliest primitive groping ages, to wed the present to the timeless, to eternity, to the heavens. Ever since humanity began examining and recording the celestial vault about 5000 years ago in the middle east, it was and remained for the majority of people, who always judge, by surfaces merely, not wisely well or even remotely accurately, the world remained as Churchill famously stated, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside and enigma.”  

This summary proved more durable, more valid, as time passed, confirming by reliable recent discoveries the wild nebulous inspirations of a very very few gifted seers with rare intuitions into nature’s stunning cosmic visiting muses, so compelling as to remain valid even today.  We know the fantasies, myths and imaginings of the bulk of our species remained primitive, like the tales about the humanized vain gods of Mount Olympus.  

One of these very few was Anaximander, a Greek, who had a unique novel bold conception, an atomic theory in the sixth century BC, even as we know it today, that held up against the test of time becoming the basic view of cosmology for more than 2000 years. 

Next, Epicurus a few centuries later (341-270 BC) sought and taught tranquillity, spiritual freedom, and the enjoyment of the world by limiting material desires while pursuing peace of mind and virtue, living moderately, avoiding overindulgence, reasoning soberly. In short, live wisely, well, and justly to have a pleasant life. 

He too followed the atomic notion believing the heavens to be infinite with an infinite supply of the same tiny invisible particles, atoms, adding the idea that some atoms could “swerve” – a crucial thought as it turned out that would allow humans to have some effect on the eventual flow or elaboration of the cosmos, even including free will. This “swerve” proved to be necessary in the attempt by homosapiens to unravel the mysteries of secretive nature up to our own times.  

Einstein himself warned that, “nature is devious, not always playing the same game.”  The greatest scholars have always sensed this – that nature will always “tell you a direct lie if she can,” cautioned Charles Darwin, the most observant searcher for the remains of evolutionary changes in all species.  But even the great biologist, it is said, “was not in a position to foresee the strange mental archaeology by which Sigmund Freud would probe the depths of the human mind, the latent, shadowy powers lurking in the subconscious mind” for that too is a part of “all there is,” a part of our reality.  

We are only too aware now of the many schools of psychology and psychiatry that plague us in our dreams, our disturbed repose that we read and hear of daily. (Freud, with Karl Yong, called dreams “the royal road to the subconscious mind.”) 

Nature may indeed be too devious requiring a lifetime of study for a curious mind, in biology at least.  

Indeed, Ellen Ullman states in a Harper’s Magazine article that to survive “we need to be aware of our own inner mental state, and those of others, quickly, deeply, at a glance.”  Our limbic system allows us to do what other animals cannot – read other peoples’ minds for our own safety.  

This “something” is psychological, that strange meeting of the physical neurons and intangible mind, a worthy pursuit for the Innovation Centre.

Returning to the past after this little modern glimpse at the secrecy of nature, we come after Epicurus to perhaps the most remarkable of the ancients, Titus Lucretius Carus (100-55 BC), the author of De Rerum Natura, or On the Nature of the Universe. He lived at the very same time as Caesar, in a wild period, turbulent, violent, vicious, murderous. To continue, a reflective soul, alienated from his dangerous Rome, he sought relief, salvation, and meaning in the study of the depth, the vastness of both Epicurian philosophy and the silent, tranquil, sparkling stars, so different than turbulent Rome.  

As Jane Smiley wrote in the Globe and Mail, “an obscure classical book composed by Lucretius was searched for and found by an obscure papal scribe, began to unseat common beliefs.” Poggio Bracciolini, the papal’s scribe had such beautiful handwriting that it propelled him to become the Pope’s ambassador, diplomat, and business manager. 

The Pope lost his job, and so did Poggio who returned to his former work as a copier of old Roman manuscripts which he sought passionately revering the classics as he did, in remote monasteries, an obsession he relished. He found some of value, in a few of Cicero’s compositions, but not Earth-shaking.  

In 1417 in a monastery in Germany he stumbled on De Rerum Natura on a dusty bookshelf, lost for centuries, forgotten and neglected. The Earth would shake over this recovered treasure. 

He recognized the lost gem immediately, indeed the lost gem from Roman antiquity – it changed history, for as Smiley writes “the manifestations of modernism all grew from this single seed.”  The text emerged slowly over the centuries until the twentieth century caught up to it.  

He describes the atomic theory as we know it, foresees the periodic table as we know it, summarizes the paths of the atom as we know them (atom means indivisible), since it is the basic component of the smallest and largest of the heavenly bodies in the universe. 

All of this is rendered in the most beautiful, lyrical poetry, from a poet for the ages.  Accurate physics is rendered so tastefully, a rare event indeed.  We have the Innovation Centre, we have the students, prepared to meet Lucretius, Lord of Atomic Theory, Master of the Eternal dance of matter, if we can manage to catch up to him. 

Leaving Lucretius to his rarified, singular musings on the meaning of the universe, for he journeys alone, in majestic supremacy, let us return to what developed in the meantime in “normal,” widespread, “rational” miscalculations.  As the centuries slipped by the reasonings of a rational few – Copernicus, Bruno, Galileo, Newton, added to the sharing of a reasonable order, examining the science “of all there is.”  

They probed the heavens, one settled set of stars, in the Milky Way, fixed and immovable until 1925 when Edwin Hubble unleashed contrary to reason and common sense, an age of mystery for the twentieth century far more incredible than the fantastical myths gullibly swallowed for centuries describing the humanized Gods on Mount Olympus – all nonsense. 

Hubble began with one stable galaxy, the Milky Way, in an empty void. Those who followed him loaded revelation upon revelation, so bizarre that from 1929 to now the rational, cosmic order of Galileo and Newton was rendered so chaotic, puzzling, unfathomable that one physicist replied to another on being told that the cosmos was “crazier than we know,” that it is worse – “crazier than we can know.” 

What happened? New findings strained credulity and even the limits of imagination.  

Henrietta Leavitt, an astronomer at Harvard, designed a method to measure the astounding distances to, now, far away stars, as well as the size of the Milky Way and the shocking average distance between newly discovered multiple galaxies that only recently were incredible – about two million light years.  

Galaxies began sprouting like weeds. Hubble’s one galaxy became in a few decades, from 400 billion to 2 trillion each with 100 billion stars.  

It was found that the Milky Way alone has 200 billion stars, a diameter of one hundred thousand light-years (it takes a beam of light one hundred thousand years moving at 186 thousand miles per second to “zip” across the galaxy). Our notions of galaxies and stars and the cosmos needed revision as the atomic theories of Lucretius waited for modernity to catch up to his sophistication.  

As an example of the new dispensation physicist Garth Illingworth studies the beginnings and endings “of all there is,” especially those most distant objects whose light has travelled through space for more than thirteen billion years. The most distant object so far is about 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles from Earth.  

We poor mortals, some of us, toe to toe with the eternal, with infinity, an avalanche of numbers rattling our comfort zone, requiring adjustments we perhaps find too esoteric to complacently accept. On the other hand, think of the excitement bubbling up in the galloping minds of our Del Students who might relish the escape from the mundane, to flutter on the edges of nature’s revelations.  

It might make one envious. We want to play also. 

Alan Gurth, a physicist at MIT writing an unbelievable heroic tale about the “Big Bang” of fourteen billion years ago, the beginning of everything, reported that the future universe, packed into a point smaller than a proton(!) inflated in far, far less than a second in a torrent of pure physics at trillions of times the speed of light, generated all that is, or ever will be. Moreover, further straining credulity, subatomic particles unbuckled forming both matter and antimatter which, colliding, annihilated each other.  

So, a tiny point in primordial space – time had enough potential to generate countless galaxies and a hundred million universes! Yes!  “For sheer extravagant implausibility nothing in theology, philosophy or fairy tales can hold a candle to the “Big Bang” which should be taken seriously since considerable evidence weighs in its favour” – a creation story, which is probably not as warming or, as cozy as our wishes. 

Further recent revelations, intensely problematic, proved to be more than a challenge to contemporary science, indeed shocking and befuddling to ardent searchers. The last four hundred years of reasonable progress assumed that gravity would slow down cosmic expansion.  

Edwin Hubble, in 1929, found instead that the cosmos was expanding too rapidly, confounding expectations leaving us more befuddled than ever before.  Nature surprises constantly.  The waters were muddied rather than cleared.  Dark energy, a new element, seventy percent of all there is drives matter apart, pushing expansion. The old perennial universe of ages and ages is now a novelty.  

What we can see of it is a mere five percent of all there is (!!).  Another unknown, dark matter comprises twenty five percent of all there is.  Where next?  No one knows, yet despite many valiant attempts, puzzles multiply and abound.  

The Sorcerer’s apprentice, Mephistopheles seems to be running the show:  countless galaxies, dark energy, dark matter, neutrinos, particle physics, quantum mechanics, multiple universes, string theory, monster black holes which even Einstein, in error, thought preposterous.

The angels weep over our perplexity while we await illumination as nature disposes our splendid arrangements quietly, on grand and minute scales and, as it turns out, mostly in profound darkness. But there are immediate issues also requiring the scrutiny of our fresh young minds in our sparkling new labs – global warming, surprising earthquakes and well-known fragile zones that too often catch us unprepared.  

Lethal, unpredictable ice ages dramatically appear with stunning rapidity (the evidence is from ice cores) in a few years, without warning, instead of a longer more delusional, comfortable interlude of thousands of years.  Among the most puzzling enigmas, so immediate, so pressing is of all things – smoking cigarettes. 

It kills twenty percent of us yearly – yes, year after year, despite so many warnings. Why? Do we not control our own minds?  This too obvious conundrum awaits, no, demands a concerted attack to reduce, to ameliorate the palpable suffering, funerals, family sorrows – all the inevitable but so avoidable horror stories.  

Here we confront the machinations of our own minds, the meeting place of body and soul, too blatant to ignore.  Is there an obstacle the size of Gibraltar in the way? Is the Sorcerer’s apprentice at work again?  Are Freudian mental gymnastics needed to bring the darkness to light?  

The light may be lit in the Innovation Centre. 

The Centre awaits. 

It is ready to welcome to fresh minds to probe the wrinkles in the vast universe and yesterday’s newspaper. Nature is as we have read, a difficult secretive combatant in no hurry, luxuriating in limitless time and space.  

The challenge is welcome as we anticipate the wedding of the present to the timeless, reaping the victories of our students in the Innovation Centre.  

We salute all of you.  We salute the curious learners for serendipity does provide for them and has.  We salute the visionaries for revelations appear to dreamers, and still do.  We salute the industrious for harvests do come to persistent labour.  We salute those who hunger for nature’s secrets to whom revelations materialize.

We have the labs.  We have the searchers.  We have prepared minds eager to listen to the “music of the spheres.” 

Play on.