The vastness of it all

A Nautilus piece published on 25th November 2020 titled “A Supermassive Lens on the Constants of Nature” begins by telling us that the 2020 Physics Nobel winners have “established that the center of our own galaxy houses a supermassive black hole with the equivalent of 4 million suns packed into a relatively small space.” 4 million suns….!! 

Michael Strauss, Professor & Chair of the Astrophysics Department at Princeton University makes the “distinction”, in “Welcome to the Universe: An Astrophysical Tour”, “between the universe as a whole, and the observable universe, the part we can see today.” The “boundary of the present-day observable universe”, he writes, is at a distance of “45 billion light-years from us.” And “beyond the edge of the observable universe, there is much more universe out there, indeed, an infinite amount, if we are to believe our current measurements of the geometry of the observable universe and our cosmological models.” 

In “The Power of Myth”, Joseph Campbell narrates a story about Indra. “….it happened….that a great monster had enclosed all the waters of the earth, so there was a terrible drought, and the world was in a very bad condition. It took Indra quite a while to realize that he had a box of thunderbolts and that all he had to do was to drop a thunderbolt on the monster and blow him up. When he did that, the waters flowed, and the world was refreshed, and Indra said, “What a great boy am I.”

Indra then goes on to the top of the the “central mountain of the world” and commissions the “carpenter of the gods” to build him the grandest of palaces – a palace like none anywhere. Each time Indra comes to inspect the progress, he instructs the carpenter with more and more ideas on making the palace bigger and more spectacular. The carpenter, in frustration, approaches Brahma for help – Brahma, in turn, seeks out the “sleeping Vishnu” who “just makes a gesture and says something like, “Listen, fly, something is going to happen.”

“Next morning, at the gate of the palace that is being built there appears a beautiful blue-black boy” who tells Indra “I have been told that you are building a palace as no Indra before you ever built.”

And Indra says, “Indras before me, young man – what are you talking about?”

The boy says, “Indras before you. I have seen them come and go. Just think, Vishnu sleeps in the cosmic ocean and the lotus of the universe grows from his navel. On the lotus sits Brahma, the creator. Brahma opens his eyes, and world comes into being, governed by an Indra. Brahma closes his eyes, and world goes out of being. The life of a Brahma is four hundred and thirty-two thousand years. When he dies, the lotus goes back, and another lotus is formed, and another Brahma.””

The boy’s next words tell us that thousands and thousands of years ago, human beings sensed the vastness they were part of. “Then think of the galaxies beyond galaxies in infinite space, each a lotus, with a Brahma sitting on it, opening his eyes and closing his eyes. And Indras? There may be wise men in your court who would volunteer to count the drops of water in the oceans of the world or the grains of sand on the beaches, but no one would” be able to count the number of  Indras.

As the boy continues to talk, an “army of ants” passes by, and the boy laughs. Indra asks, “Why do you laugh?”

“The boy answers, “Don’t ask unless you are willing to be hurt.”

Indra says, “I ask. Teach….”

And so the boy points to the ants and says, “Former Indras all. Through many lifetimes they rise from the lowest conditions to the highest illumination. And then they drop their thunderbolt on a monster and think, ‘What a good boy am I!’ And down they go again.”

Carl Sagan writes in “Contact”: “For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.”

Peace 🙂

“Compassion — a radical necessity”

On 4th March 1950, Albert Einstein wrote to a gentleman (translation quoted in “Finding Peace in Life and Death: A Synopsis of Reality Versus the Human Mind” by Patrick Baxter) who had requested him to help comfort his daughter – after her sister had passed away.   In the letter, we read Einstein on the relationship between compassion and liberation.

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.

Einstein goes on: “Our task must me to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all….the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of….liberation and a foundation for inner security.” 

About two thousand years before this letter, in the Vivekachudamani (Verse 82, translated by Swami Ranganathananda in “The Message of the Vivekachudamani”), we read the sage Adi Sankara tell us that if we have “a craving for liberation”, one of the “the nectar-like virtues” we must cultivate is “compassion“.

The Buddhist Teacher, Joan Halifax takes this a bit deeper than liberation in a talk delivered at the Wisdom 2.0 Conference on 1st March 2015. She says the “images of aggression, violence, of suffering” that we “are flooded” with clearly tell us that “Compassion is a….radical necessity.”

In an essay titled “Good Leadership is an Act of Kindness” published in the 1st November 2020 issue of “Harvard Business Review: Working Knowledge”, Boris Groysberg (Professor at Harvard Business School) and Susan Seligson advise Business Leaders that we are confronted with times where “the manager’s toolkit must expand in ways we haven’t seen before.” The most important addition to the toolkit, they say, is “kindness”. They write: “Even if gestures of….compassion were not woven into business as usual before the pandemic, they are essential now and going forward.”

Peace 🙂


The poem “Compassion”, (published in the collection of Miller Williams’ poems, “The Ways We Touch: Poems”) has these profound lines:

Have compassion for everyone you meet,

even if they don’t want it. What seems conceit, 

bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign 

of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.

You do not know what wars are going on

down there where the spirit meets the bone.

In a section of the “Mahabharata” (translated by Bibek Debroy) titled “Markandeya Samasya Parva”, we read an illuminating conversation between a meat seller and a Brahmin (who, owing to his conceit, is asked by a lady to learn from the meat seller). Speaking about dharma, the meat seller says: “The virtuous are those who are compassionate towards everything.”

Painting by Pooja Bhatt

In “Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul”, a moving book inspired by correspondence between Albert Einstein and a grieving Rabbi, Naomi Levy introduces us to the Hebrew word “husa”“a word that appears repeatedly in Jewish prayers.”

“What is husa? What does it mean?”, the Rabbi Naomi asks. She answers: “It’s not pity, not mercy….Husa is the special kind of love that an artist has for his or her own creation, even when it’s imperfect. That’s the key to husa. It’s a compassion for something that’s flawed. Husa involves the absence of judgement. That’s why Jews turn to God and ask for husa in their prayers: “The soul is Yours, the body is Your creation, husa, have compassion for Your work.””

And what the person in such prayer hears is “a voice of compassion that says: Try again, it’s okay, pick yourself up.”

Peace 🙂

Roger Penrose, Thank you

In a Discover Magazine conversation, Roger Penrose was asked: “Is it true that you were bad at math as a kid?”

He replied:

I was unbelievably slow….When I was 8, sitting in class, we had to do this mental arithmetic very fast, or what seemed to me very fast. I always got lost. And the teacher, who didn’t like me very much, moved me down a class. There was one rather insightful teacher who decided, after I’d done so badly on these tests, that he would have timeless tests. You could just take as long as you’d like. We all had the same test. I was allowed to take the entire next period to continue, which was a play period. Everyone was always out and enjoying themselves, and I was struggling away to do these tests. And even then sometimes it would stretch into the period beyond that. So I was at least twice as slow as anybody else. Eventually I would do very well. You see, if I could do it that way, I would get very high marks.

The “insightful teacher” Roger speaks of, wherever he may be, would be smiling now. Roger Penrose was awarded the Nobel for Physics yesterday. 

In “The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics”, Roger puts forward his view that consciousness is not algorithmic — implying, as i understand him, that even the most advanced AI cannot result in consciousness as an emergent property. He writes that “some of the arguments” he makes “may seem tortuous and complicated. Some are admittedly speculative….Yet, beneath all this technicality is the feeling that that it is indeed ‘obvious’ that the conscious mind cannot work like a computer, even though much of what is actually involved in mental activity might do so.” He goes on to explain that a childlike mind helps to see this “obviousness.

This is the kind of obviousness that a child can see….Children sometimes see things clearly that are indeed obscured in later life. We often forget the wonder we felt as children….Children are not afraid to pose basic questions that may embarrass us, as adults, to ask.

This mind, which sees the world continually afresh, is something that Einstein too, Walter Isaacson tells us, (“Einstein: His Life and Universe”) had all his life. “He never lost his sense of wonder at the magic of nature’s phenomena — magnetic fields, gravity, inertia, acceleration, light beams — which grown-ups find so commonplace…..”People like you and me never grow old,” he wrote a friend later in life. “We never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born.””

Photo by Isaac Davison Unsplash.

Stephen Jay Gould, the Paleontologist who was Professor at Harvard and New York University,  writes in an essay (“Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History”) that “however bizarre and arcane our world might be, nature remains potentially comprehensible to the human mind.” 

We have this faith, that Nature may be comprehensible, owing to Einstein, Roger Penrose, and others like them — adults who, as Walter Isaacson says, “retain the intuition and the awe of a child”, and have the kindness to tell us what they see.

Benjamin Hoff explains in “The Tao of Pooh” that this child-mind, simple (yet profound), comes about

When you discard arrogance, complexity, and a few other things that get in the way.

People with such minds give us Faith — that the human species still has a chance of being deserving of the Life that the Cosmos gifts us.

Peace 🙂