Essay — From the March 2018 issue

The Infinity of the Small

Have we reached the frontier of the minuscule?

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It’s a clear summer night and we’ve been sitting on our dock looking up at the stars. Overhead, the diaphanous white sash of the galaxy sweeps across the sky. I feel myself falling into its depths. I am falling and falling, and I am surrounded on all sides by the stars, until I am beyond the Milky Way. In the distance, I see other galaxies, glowing spirals and pinwheels and elliptical blobs, each containing billions of stars. And I myself have grown larger. The galaxies have shrunk to mere dots. I see clusters of galaxies, then clusters of clusters, each appearing for moments and then dwindling away. I am a giant striding through the dark halls of the cosmos, becoming larger and larger, but the universe is always larger still. Mansions within mansions. Space goes on and on and on, and I am dizzy with infinity.

Fluorescent proteins in plants, microscopy by Fernán Federici and Jim Haseloff. Courtesy the artists

Then it reverses. I grow smaller. Dots of light grow into galaxies. I see spirals and pinwheels and elliptical blobs of light, and I am still shrinking. Eventually, I find myself back in my home galaxy, the Milky Way. I can see individual stars, wispy nebulae. I continue to shrink and I hurtle toward a particular star on the outskirts of my galaxy, then toward a particular planet, then toward the dappled brown coast of a landmass on that planet. Finally, I am sitting once again on a wooden dock by the sea. But I continue to shrink. I go inside a leaf, where I see green and blue vessels, veins and ridges, cellular lattices. Conglomerations of molecules. Then I see individual atoms, each a haze of electrical force. Atoms at last, the heralded units of matter for so many centuries.

Is this where my inward-bound journey will end? Have I arrived at the tiniest dots of reality? But there are smaller things still. I fall into a particular atom. I see vibrating mists and vast empty spaces, then a dense throbbing mass down below, at the core of the thing, the protons and neutrons, the nucleus. Relentlessly, I grow smaller. I enter a single proton. It is impossible, the violent energies nearly obstruct my view. Subatomic particles appear out of nothing, like ghosts, then vanish. I see a trio of blurs: the three quarks. Have I finally reached the bottom of existence, the tiniest specks of the world? But there are smaller things still. I shrink within a single quark. I am blinded by energy. Far, far off in the distance, many powers of ten smaller, I see vibrating strings of pure energy. And, astoundingly, I continue to fall. There’s no end to it. I am dizzy with infinity, the infinity of the small.

It may have been the ancient Greeks who first conceived of a tiniest unit of matter, the atom or atomos, meaning “uncuttable.” Atoms, they believed, were not only uncuttable — they were indestructible. Atoms protected us from the whimsy of the gods, said Democritus and Lucretius, because atoms could not be created or destroyed. Even the gods had to obey their iron whims. Newton also prized atoms, but as the handiwork of God rather than as a defense against Him. With a surer grasp of the logic of nature than any mortal before him, Newton wrote: “It seems probable to me that God in the beginning formed matter in solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, moveable particles.” These particles, he speculated, were “so very hard as never to wear or break in pieces; no ordinary power being able to divide what God himself made one in the first creation.” Indeed, atoms were the ultimate Oneness of the material world: perfect in their indivisibility, perfect in their wholeness and indestructibility. Atoms were the embodiment of truth. They were, along with stars, the material icons of the Absolutes.

Atoms also unified the world. A leaf and a human being are made of the same stuff: take them apart, and we find identical atoms of hydrogen and oxygen and carbon and other elements. On that foundation, we can build systems. We can organize and construct the rest of the world. And for a long time, we believed that atoms prevented us from falling forever into smaller and smaller rooms of reality. When we reach atoms — so the thinking went — the falling stops. We are caught. We are safe. And from there, we begin our journey back up, building the rest of the world.

“The Surface of Hopkins Pond Inverted to Print the Sky #8, Mariaville, Maine,” a photograph by Caleb Charland from his series Inversions. Courtesy the artist and Sasha Wolf Projects, New York City

Of course, the idea of fundamental elements can be found in all cultures and eras. Thinkers in ancient India conceived of a system of five: fire, water, wind, space, and earth. Fire was associated with bone and speech, water with blood and urine, earth with flesh and mind. Aristotle, too, built the cosmos out of five elements: earth, air, water, fire, and ether (for the heavenly bodies). For the ancient Chinese, the fundamental elements were wood, fire, metal, water, and earth.

Evidently, we humans are driven to construct the cosmos from such basic elements. Why? Closely related: Why do we create systems and patterns? Are those patterns already there, independent of our desires, or do we impose them on a chaotic universe in order to scratch some existential itch? Could it be that we crave order for sanity? Another thought: with fundamental elements, we can conceive of the world as being constructed, whether the master builder be an active God or the more passive Laws of Nature. A constructed world implies order and design — and the faint suggestion of an intelligence behind that order. Unless that intelligence is in fact our own, looking at ourselves simultaneously through both ends of the telescope.

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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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