Essay — From the March 2018 issue

The Infinity of the Small

Have we reached the frontier of the minuscule?

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It is the end of June, and I am wandering about my small island in Maine. I’ve been thinking about the materiality of the world. Today, I just want to experience the fleshiness of this island. I run my hands along the bristly branches of a spruce tree. I could identify that prickle blindfolded. My bare feet sink into spongy moss. On the rocks lie mussel shells dropped from on high by crafty gulls seeking to break them apart and liberate the food within. The shells feel smooth and cool even in the sun. This tiny island in Casco Bay is shaped like a finger, half a mile long and a tenth of a mile wide. A high bony ridge runs down its spine, a hundred feet above sea level, and my house lies on the north end of the ridge. To the south, there are five other cottages, cloaked from one another by a dense growth of trees — mostly spruce, but also pine, cedar, and poplar, whose leaves in the wind sound like hands clapping.

As did Thoreau in Concord, I’ve traveled far and wide on this island. I know each cedar and poplar, each clump of beach rose, each patch of blueberry bush and raspberry bramble and the woody stems of the hydrangeas, all the soft mounds of moss, some of which I touch on my ramblings today. The tart scent of raspberries blends with the salty sea air. Early this morning, a fog enveloped the island so completely that I felt as if I were in a spaceship afloat in outer space — white space. But the surreal fog, made of water droplets too tiny to see, eventually evaporated and disappeared. It’s all material, even the magical fog, like the bioluminescence I first saw as a child. It’s all atoms and molecules.

The materiality of the world is a fact, but facts don’t explain the experience. Shining seawater, fog, sunsets, stars. All material. So grand is the material that we find it hard to accept it as merely material, like meeting a man driving a Cadillac who claims he has only one dollar in his pocket. Surely there must be more. “Nature,” wrote Emily Dickinson,

is what we see —
The Hill — the Afternoon —
Squirrel — Eclipse — the Bumble bee —
Nay — Nature is Heaven.

In the last of these lines, the poet leaps from the finite to infinity, to the realm of the Absolutes. It is almost as if nature in her glory wants us to believe in a heaven, something divine and immaterial beyond nature itself. In other words, the natural tempts us to believe in the supernatural. But then again, nature has also given us big brains, allowing us to build microscopes and telescopes and ultimately, for some of us, to conclude that it’s all just atoms and molecules.

El Sol 2, a collage from the series Koan, by Luis González Palma. For this series, the artist used images of astrophysical phenomena—interplanetary bodies, spectral lines, and stellar particles—from the archives of the observatory at the University of Córdoba, in Argentina. Courtesy Lisa Sette Gallery, Phoenix

For me, the human body is the most amazing and baffling phenomenon of the material world. How could it be that the exquisite and indescribable experience of consciousness, of thought and emotion, of the overpowering sense of an I, is simply the result of so many electrical and chemical flows between neurons, which are themselves nothing but atoms and molecules? I am constantly struck dumb by this mystery. I assume that the first single-celled creatures moving about in the primeval seas did not have consciousness or thoughts. Evidently, those qualities emerged with increasing complexity and natural selection. As Darwin wrote in the last lines of his great book, “From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” Beautiful and wondrous, yes — but all material stuff, say the biologists.

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, a physicist and novelist, teaches at MIT. His essay “What Came Before the Big Bang?” appeared in the January 2016 issue of Harper’s Magazine. His book Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, from which this essay is adapted, will be published next month by Pantheon.

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