Finding your place in the universe
Gabriel Niforatos | Monday, October 19, 2020
Do you feel at home in the universe?
This is the question that my professor began class with last Monday and it has stuck with me ever since, because I am not sure that there is an easy answer to it. Perhaps there is something about October that puts me in an introspective mood. Maybe it has to do with the fact that the semester is winding down and everyone is thinking about home, a ten-week long winter hibernation and how COVID-19 will impact holiday plans. Maybe it is related to an age-old Halloween tradition to tell stories to one another as the weather turns cooler and the leaves begin to turn color.
The question of feeling at home in the universe was a preface to a presentation that my class saw in Jordan Hall’s Digital Visualization Theater the following day. Many of you might be familiar with the Theater, or DVT, but as a political science major who has rarely made the Magellan voyage across campus to the hall of science, last Tuesday was a first for me. When you enter the theater, it looks like the inside of an observatory (I say confidently, as if I frequent observatories every weekend), and I was confident that the presentation would be the sort that we are all familiar with. You know what I’m talking about. A presentation about the universe that portrays it as a nesting doll on the cosmic level, starting with Earth and widening the scope to the solar system, the Milky Way galaxy and so on and so forth. While this was the structure of Tuesday’s presentation, I could not have predicted the experience. The technology of the theater made you feel as if you were floating alongside Earth, galaxies and nebulae, a privileged observer with an angle of the universe that we can only dream of in our present ignorance. While the experience was enjoyable, I confess that I was overwhelmed by it all.
I have always been fascinated with science and the universe. My close friends will be able to tell you that the first job I wanted when I was a child was to study quarks, that I was inches away from adding a Biology major during sophomore year. But I entered the theater on Tuesday with my political philosophy and constitutional law books tucked under my arm, ready for whatever I was about to see. An hour and fifteen minutes later, and a near four years of college suddenly seemed completely unsure to me. I felt lost in the size of the universe, dizzy, reeling as if I had been pulled out of the ocean. It is impossible to comprehend the immensity of it all, and the loneliness of earth was magnified against this backdrop. I left the theater, and my legs felt wobbly. There are billions of galaxies and a countless number of stars within the universe. How insignificant the trees and the wind and the sidewalks seemed to me now, let alone the interworking of my own life. To say that humanity is a speck of dust compared to the vastness of all that is in space is an understatement.
This is usually the place in my column where I pivot. Nothing can be entirely existential, right? The fact that life exists on Earth must set us apart as meaningful in some facet, regardless of whether you define that as a spiritual or scientific anomaly. God became incarnate and this must mean that he sees us past the dust of nebulae and the light of faraway worlds, right? I wish I had an answer for you, but I reentered the world on Tuesday night and I write this to you as someone who feels as if they are out at sea.
Do I feel at home in the universe? Finding my place in the universe sounds a whole lot more daunting than finding who I am on this planet, but I think that this task is fundamentally the same in some regards. That doesn’t mean I have all the answers, or any of them for that matter. We are all made of star stuff, as Carl Sagan once said, formed from elements and materials from ancient stars. But right now, I cannot say that I feel at home in the universe.
What I do know is that the universe is expanding, and I implore you to do the same. Space is infinite, but I think that we might be as well.
Gabriel Niforatos is a senior majoring in political science with minors in the Hesburgh Program in Public Service and theology. He is passionate about giving a voice to the disenfranchised and writing is the muse he is persistently chasing. He can be found at [email protected] or @g_niforatos on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.