Dust to dust

Here matter and spirit appear to me the same,
for the silence takes my heart's voice as its own.
By day I roam the sands of black, alone.
Here I see a new and inner world aflame.
In my mind's lens I watch the king of light
with his grand game through endless space unfurled.
Each speck of dust is structured as a world
with heaven's magnetic force and stars in flight.

Einar Benediktsson: Stórisandur
Transl. Bernard Scudder.

We are brought down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground Psalms 44:25
When we contemplate infinity in the realm of nature our thoughts inevitably lose all grasp of physical reality and start wandering around in the inner world of the imagination. The boundary between subject and object is dissolved in the mist of imaginary landscapes where the images spread out and lead us astray; here the GPS instruments are of no use any more, because measurability no longer exists.

Therefore the question arises: where does this border lie, where does our mind stop going astray in the landscapes of our daydreams and where does graspable and objective reality begin, the reality we can measure with our measuring technology, so that we can know exactly where in the world we are and therefore also who we really are?

Is it possible that this boundary does exist on the extremes of the measuring technology that man has invented to measure the immensity of the Universe?

On the 6th of April this year The Royal Astronomical Society issued an announcement concerning the space telescope Spitzer, which is now in orbit in space, confirming that they had received infrared photographs from the telescope showing two planets in orbit around a sun in some distant galaxies outside our solar system. We were told these photographs were the first measurable information we had obtained from galaxies outside our solar system. The scientists from the Royal Astronomical Society discerned new galaxies so distant that they could picture the very youth of the universe1; and the infrared photographs showed that the planets HD 209458b and Tr ES-1 had a surface temperature of 727º C. The problem is that these measurements are rather old news, coming from the time when the universe had reached only 5% of its present age. For a contemporary journalist that would probably be considered outdated information, at least if we are supposed to draw conclusions from this based on our Christian calendar.2
But the big news must be that according to all this, science seems to have only a short way to go to find measurable information from the origin of the universe, or even from beyond that origin.

Information of this kind is vertiginous and ignites our imagination. Is it possible that the technology of measurement is about to reach to the beginning of time?

Like all other measuring instruments, Spitzer is a kind of extension of man’s sensory organs, the fruit of technological achievements of the human spirit. This instrument weights 950 kg. and is equipped with a mirror made of beryllium with a diameter of 85 cm. The telescope was launched into space from Cape Canaveral in Florida on the 25th of August 2003, and it went into orbit around the sun. It has a speed of 1 arcsec/sec.3 Seen in earthly terms earth this is a tremendous speed, because the telescope moves 15 million km away from the earth per year, but from the perspective of the universe Spitzer is almost standing still. The scientists hope that Spitzer will continue to transmit information back to earth until the year 2008, and judging from the results already achieved it is not inconceivable that over this period it will bring us measurable information about the origin of the universe and even about what lies beyond that origin. If those hopes came true, science would have laid its hands on the transcendental, what is beyond the universe.

The big question then is whether man is moving closer to grasping the transcendental with his sensory organs and their extensions?
One of the things that distinguishes man from other living beings on earth is the fact that he transforms his perceptions into images. Animals and plants do sense light and darkness, warmth and cold, dryness and humidity, the softness and hardness of the material world, just like man, but they react to their senses by instinct. Biological and historical roots of images, language, myths and science that man has developed and employed to cope with and understand the stimuli from the material world undoubtedly lie in instincts, just as they do for other living beings; but with the advent of civilisation instinct had to give way to the images that fill our dreams and form the basis of language and therefore also technology. But as it says in the Psalms: “We are brought down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground.” Our perceptions and our consciousness have their origins in the material world, and the big question is therefore how such a wondrous thing could happen to the universe, that it started to make its own image and create what we call human consciousness about ourselves and the universe.

We all know that theology has its answers to these questions: the world was created out of nothing and man was created from its dust, and man was endowed with the privilege over other living beings that spirit was infused into his material body. This spirit came from the Creator, who was situated outside the world, in the world of the transcendental. According to theology the spirit does not have its roots in the material world, its roots lie in the transcendental and spirit only stays temporarily in our mortal bodies before it returns to its Creator, goes back to the transcendental. In this way theology and a good deal of the sciences have explained to us the fundamental differences between the material and spirit, between soul and body.

Contemporary materialism, on the other hand, tells us that the universe is its own creation, that there is only one world which has always existed and there was never any transcendental or other world than this one that is, here and now. That the spirit of man has risen from dust and will revert to its origins.

From this point of view it becomes even more remarkable that we are now witnessing through a telescope what was happening in the universe when it had only lived 5% of its present age and we can even glimpse the possibility of seeing still further back in time. What do such expectations imply?

To begin with, they seem to imply that scientists have already fixed the date of the origin of the universe, an assertion that must be based on measurements. This kind of assertion is a vertiginous statement too and induces dreams. As soon as we make a definition of the origin of time we are also defining what was before the origin of time. That would be non-time, something that must be immeasurable. Before time there was nothing, but that which is nothing cannot exist unless it is something. Really our thought is incapable of grasping what was before time. No more than it can grasp the end of time. The end of time only exists in mythological and symbolic images and visions of the apocalyptic prophets. In fact we have no other measure of time than our own body, this mortal body that was different yesterday from what it is today and will be different again tomorrow. It is in our body that we perceive the cycles of the planets and the dawn of every new day. The cycle of the sun is built into the biological clock of our body. Time is not a measurable phenomenon like an object or a body lying before our eyes. Above all it is an experience, the experience of being. The end of time is a personal experience that takes place when life expires and our body turns to dust. An event that is happening continuously and is one of the fundamental laws of life.

When we imagine ourselves as being Spitzer and make believe that we are looking at the origin of time at the end of the world, it is as if we ourselves had stepped out of the world and were looking at it from outside: from the transcendental point of view. But the Spitzer telescope that sends us images of the origin of time is not transcendental in origin, any more than our bodies or our minds are. The astronomic fairytale about the origin of time in distant galaxies is magnificent poetry of a mind that conceives of the Universe as if it weren’t a part of it itself. A mind that dwells out of time and space, looking at the birth of time from distance. We only need to pinch ourselves to realise that time, the perceived time of experience, is here and now and nowhere else. This doesn’t diminish the fascination of the fairytale of galaxies and the origin of time, which remains beautiful and seductive like all the mysterious and poetic truths that bestow their splendour by their very absence.

If the material world has existed forever and continuously re-created itself, and if our thoughts and mind are inevitably bound to earth through our body, then our thought is the greatest mystery of the material world, because it shows us how the world created its own image. The human mind re-creates the world in its images at any given time. All our images of the world are also images of our own bodies and our own minds. This is equally true of the infrared images sent by the telescope Spitzer which depict the origin of time in distant galaxies.

Those who claim that Spitzer brings us “objective” images of the world in its measurable state seem to believe that the material world of the universe has only one scope and destiny: to provide answers to human sensory organs and to the questions man happens to ask on the basis of measurability he has invented. But there is more to the measurability of the world than meets the eye. As I lift my own eyes at this very moment from the black keyboard of my laptop to the window and out into the gleaming light of the ice-cold Icelandic polar spring, where the sun reflected from snow-white roofs contrasts with the deep-blue sky, and where crooked rowans stretch out from the grey asphalt, swollen and reddened by the call of time, this question comes into my mind: where are the pigeons of my youth, the pigeons that once lived in the gutters of roofs in Reykjavík and answered the call of time with their cooing song in springtime? Who can measure this memory and this sense of loss?

This essay was written in April 2005 after a visit to the studio of Húbert Nói on the occasion of his exhibition at Gallery Terpentine in Reykjavík.

Ólafur Gíslasson.

1 The scientist Laurence Eyles said these galaxies were 300 million years old, but nevertheless originated from the very young age of the Universe. See: http://www.astro.ex.ac.uk/people/bunker/spitzer/Spitzer.html

2 “The real puzzle is that these galaxies seem to be already quite old when the universe was only about 5 per cent of its current age ... This means star formations must have started very early in the history of the universe – earlier than previously believed”, said Professor Richard Ellis of Caltech (Spitzer Science Center). See: http://www.astro.ex.ac.uk/people/bunker/spitzer/Spitzer.html

3 1 arcsec is 1/36000 of a second in a orbit of 360°.

©Húbert Nói Jóhannesson