To introduce our unit on cells and mathematical powers of ten, I showed my class the 1977 video “Powers of Ten.” The film shows the relative sizes of objects ranging from galaxies to protons and electrons. It’s astounding—Charles and Ray Eames created such a good film that it’s still relevant almost forty years later. In the age of YouTube and countless electronic educational resources, nothing quite shows the scale of the universe any better. It begins with a couple lounging on a picnic blanket takes the viewer on a whirlwind tour through then galaxies and then down into the human body. Check it out below.
(To read Thoughts on the Universe, Part I, click here.)
I think it teaches us about far more than math and science, though. I think it can help us see where there’s purpose in our lives. Not convinced yet? Keep reading.
It all depends on perspective. At the lowest, smallest level, the universe is one of infinite chaos. Look at the most closely magnified level, inside a single atom. Once thought to be in neat circles, scientists now know electrons follow a path so chaotic that their position can only be represented by a grainy probability cloud, telling where electrons might be at any given time. Even if you could find one, according to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, you only know where it was, since now that it has been observed, you have affected it. No one can know the position and velocity of such a particle at one time. Charles and Ray Eames chose to represent subatomic particles with churning, boiling spots of constantly changing colored circles. It conveys brilliantly what quantum mechanics teaches us—the tiny world is incomprehensibly chaotic.
Zoom the camera lens back about twenty powers of ten, and now look at space. Sextillion ton rocks and balls of gas a thousand times earth’s size now join in a cosmic ballet so well choreographed that scientists can predict where each one will be thousands of years hence. All nine (sorry, eight) planets revolve in their polite ellipses with the precision of a Swiss watch. Think of earth’s position, too. Just a few percentage points closer to or further from the sun, and life on this planet would be rendered impossible, yet all things come together to make it happen. It’s all startlingly perfect for a scale so incomprehensibly huge.
Why should we expect our lives to be any different? Just as 99.9999% of each atom is empty space, the largest portions of our lives are made of seemingly senseless minutiae, the day to day grind of work, driving, and maybe a little sleep—-bills, coffee stains, traffic, and cell phone batteries at 10% charge hound our psyches. Looking at your life with a snapshot of a single day may reveal little design or purpose. Like Shakespeare reads, “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” It looks like white noise, inane action—rowing and rowing but getting nowhere.
Zoom the camera lens back several decades, and then trends emerge. Hindsight is 20/20, and given a larger frame, random conversations no longer look so random. Happenstance meetings change the course of our lives, and little moments join to make the relationships that define our lives. One job was preparing you for another phase of life. The child you changed diapers for is now making laws to make the world a better place. Students you never thought were listening invite you to their medical school graduation.
In the bigger picture, the random, mundane, and chaotic moments make more sense.
Even then, though, we are still left scratching our heads. Why do two grandparents have to die of Alzheimer’s? Why does a car wreck leave an uncle disabled for life? Does divorce have to come in the middle of a recession?
But there are many powers of ten left to zoom back. If we continue on our journey and look at all human history, we see not just one life, but millions of lives joined together over thousands of years. Then it becomes clearer and clearer. The manifold chaos of many lives are woven together across centuries and continents to form one great tapestry where God is telling his story, or history. It’s an epic story of ideal beginning, betrayal, struggle, hope, and redemption. In that story, each person is only a small part. Still, wouldn’t I rather have a small part in the greatest screenplay ever written than a lead role in a silly movie of my own? You are a part of something bigger than yourself. Live each day unto that.
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