The Universe, we scientists believe, started with the Big Bang around 13 billion years ago. Hot plasma spewed forth. Matter came into being. Hydrogen and Helium emerged. Light traveled free. And over billions of years, swirling gas formed galaxies. Here, stars gestated for millions of years, ignited, brewed lighter elements in their furnace, and exploded out silver-gold star dust in their death throes. So it was that our Sun received its embryonic matter — cosmic gas and remnants of dead stars — harbored protoplanets, and nurtured Life on at least one of these globes — our beloved planet Earth.
This saga of our shared place in the Universe, I believe, is one of the greatest that we can celebrate together in awe and wonder.
Perhaps my adoration for our planet and the cosmos received its seeds pre-birth. Not only from the care I received in the dark, solitary sanctuary of my mother’s womb. But that she took joy in her work as a quantum biophysicist and my father in his as an astrophysicist. They had journeyed for their research to the US back then and returned to India when I was an infant. They steeped my sister and me in the sciences and the arts, and in loving those around us. We attended an alternative school founded by the philosopher J. Krishnamurti, as did a fellow student who would become my spouse decades later. I returned to the US for higher studies. I shuttled between the East and West coasts, and then settled in the Midwest, guided by incredible mentors and surrounded by marvelous people of diverse backgrounds in each place. As a global community, we are largely united in our quest of Nature’s secrets and the scientific discoveries accompanying it.
As quantum physicists, like with those from so many other walks of life, we observe, we imagine, we analyze, we share, we create. We are privy to the stuff that makes us who we are. Trillions and trillions of atoms acting in concert within everyday materials, or in superconductors which can levitate magnets and in other marvelous states of matter. We understand the elements, the building blocks of Life. We point to how their jigsaws can piece together in modern technology or their dances in MRI machines can image the brain. We do not, however, fathom the origin or functioning of evolved Life, nor the mind, nor emotions. But we do see that each of us radiates light in the same manner as heated metal, or stars, or the Universe itself. Blackbodies, as we scientifically call them. There is a unity in that we are each suffused with a common glow from the light within us. But how far does that unity take us?
October 2020. The United States of America. We are in a moment of crisis like nothing that most of our generation or the next has seen before. A global pandemic. Extreme national unrest. Economic instabilities. Devastating storms. Infernal fires. Alarming death tolls. Irreparable damage.
We see surge after surge of the coronavirus disease plague the world. People driven out of homes, hungry, fearful, unable to bid their passing ones adieu. Science and much else is denied. Rampant hatred and prejudice tears us asunder. And we are left asking what there is to hope for, what will remain that we hold precious, sacred.
Yet, the nourishing oceanic waters of our planet continue their ebb and flow. We connect like never before in virtual space. Elephants and peacocks roam through newly emptied land and cleaner air. Strangers leaving care packages on doorsteps and other random acts of kindness abound. Grandparents feel the warmth of toddler palms kissing theirs across windowpanes. Just as I, among millions, brimmed with deep irrational love for my newborn nine years ago as he made his journey from within me to be placed on my chest by his father, millions of new parents cradle their infants today under inconceivably more challenging circumstances caused by the pandemic. As always, they sing lullabies that float to the moonlit sky, along with healing chants from those that suffered losses and mirthful balcony music from those that purposefully bring joy, solace. The distant skies speak to us through starlight and the whispers of black holes.
As a human inhabiting our beloved planet, I believe that we can come together in contemplation of our shared history, right from where it all began, and of our shared future. Perhaps we can explore again, as children, sans prejudice. Perhaps we can listen deeply, giving way to empathy, celebrating our commonalities, our diversities. Perhaps here and there we can forge safe spaces for unhindered growth, light-filled communal sanctuaries.
Professor Smitha Vishveshwara is the co-principal investigator for one of the Emergent Phenomena in Quantum Systems (EPiQS) Initiative Theory Centers. She is a Professor of Physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who spent the last academic year at University of California San Diego as an inaugural Margaret Burbidge Visiting Faculty. She wrote this perspective piece as part of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Engineering Faculty Leadership Forum, run by Professor Jennifer Bernhard. The assignment was to write a short essay on their core beliefs fashioned after thisibelieve.org.