Until the End of Time: Physicist Brian Greene on the Poetry of Existence and the Wellspring of Meaning in Our Ephemeral Lives Amid an Impartial Universe
By Maria Popova
“Praised be the fathomless universe, for life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,” Walt Whitman wrote as he stood discomposed and delirious before a universe filled with “forms, qualities, lives, humanity, language, thoughts, the ones known, and the ones unknown, the ones on the stars, the stars themselves, some shaped, others unshaped.” And yet the central animating force of our species, the wellspring of our joy and curiosity, the restlessness that gave us Whitman and Wheeler, Keats and Curie, is the very fathoming of this fathomless universe — an impulse itself a marvel in light of our own improbability. Somehow, we went from bacteria to Bach; somehow, we learned to make fire and music and mathematics. And here we are now, walking wildernesses of mossy feelings and brambled thoughts beneath an overstory of one hundred trillion synapses, coruscating with the ultimate question: What is all this?
That is what physicist and mathematician Brian Greene explores with great elegance of thought and poetic sensibility in Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe (public library). Nearly two centuries after the word scientist was coined for the Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville when her unexampled book On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences brought together the separate disciplinary streams of scientific inquiry into a single river of knowledge, Greene draws on his own field, various other sciences, and no small measure of philosophy and literature to examine what we know about the nature of reality, what we suspect about the nature of knowledge, and how these converge to shine a sidewise gleam on our own nature. With resolute scientific rigor and uncommon sensitivity to the poetic syncopations of physical reality, he takes on the questions that bellow through the bone cave atop our shoulders, the cave against whose walls Plato flickered his timeless thought experiment probing the most abiding puzzle: How are we ever sure of reality? — a question that turns the mind into a Rube Goldberg machine of other questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? How did life emerge? What is consciousness?
Although science is Greene’s raw material in this fathoming — its histories, its theories, its triumphs, its blind spots — he emerges, as one inevitably does in contemplating these colossal questions, a testament to Einstein’s conviction that “every true theorist is a kind of tamed metaphysicist.”
Looking back on how he first grew enchanted with what he calls “the romance of mathematics” and its seductive promise to unveil the timeless laws of nature, Greene writes:
Creativity constrained by logic and a set of axioms dictates how ideas can be manipulated and combined to reveal unshakable truths.
The appeal of a law of nature might be its timeless quality. But what drives us to seek the timeless, to search for qualities that may last forever? Perhaps it all comes from our singular awareness that we are anything but timeless, that our lives are anything but forever.
We emerge from laws that, as far as we can tell, are timeless, and yet we exist for the briefest moment of time. We are guided by laws that operate without concern for destination, and yet we constantly ask ourselves where we are headed. We are shaped by laws that seem not to require an underlying rationale, and yet we persistently seek meaning and purpose.
Somewhere along the way of our seeking, at one life-point or another, against one wall or another, we all arrive at what David Foster Wallace, vanquisher of euphemism, called “the recognition that I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me.” Insisting that from that recognition arises our shimmering capacity for creativity, for beauty, for meaning-making, Greene endeavors to explore “the breathtaking ways in which restless and inventive minds have illuminated and responded to the fundamental transience of everything” — minds ranging from Shakespeare to Wallace, from Sappho to Einstein.
A century after Rachel Carson observed (in a trailblazing essay that pioneered the very genre of poetic science writing in which Greene himself dwells) that “against this cosmic background the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change,” he writes:
In the fullness of time all that lives will die. For more than three billion years, as species simple and complex found their place in earth’s hierarchy, the scythe of death has cast a persistent shadow over the flowering of life. Diversity spread as life crawled from the oceans, strode on land, and took flight in the skies. But wait long enough and the ledger of birth and death, with entries more numerous than stars in the galaxy, will balance with dispassionate precision. The unfolding of any given life is beyond prediction. The final fate of any given life is a foregone conclusion.
Despite how we may distract ourselves from that omnipresent conclusion, we live terrified of our own erasure, but that very terror impels us to more-than-exist — to live, to love, to compose poems and symphonies and equations. With an eye to “the inner life that comes hand in hand with our refined cognitive capacities,” Greene writes:
The mental faculties that allow us to shape and mold and innovate are the very ones that dispel the myopia that would otherwise keep us narrowly focused on the present. The ability to manipulate the environment thoughtfully provides the capacity to shift our vantage point, to hover above the timeline and contemplate what was and imagine what will be. However much we’d prefer it otherwise, to achieve “I think, therefore I am” is to run headlong into the rejoinder “I am, therefore I will die.”
Perhaps our creative forays, from the stags at Lascaux to the equations of general relativity, emerge from the brain’s naturally selected but overly active ability to detect and coherently organize patterns. Perhaps these and related pursuits are exquisite but adaptively superfluous by-products of a sufficiently large brain released from full-time focus on securing shelter and sustenance… What lies beyond question is that we imagine and we create and we experience works, from the Pyramids to the Ninth Symphony to quantum mechanics, that are monuments to human ingenuity whose durability, if not whose content, point toward permanence.
One aspect of Greene’s argument, however, deserves more nuanced consideration: Historically, every time we humans have assumed that a certain feature or faculty is ours alone in the whole of “Creation” — sentience, tools, language, consciousness — we have been wrong. Greene makes the baseline assumption that we alone are aware of our own finitude. “It is only you and I and the rest of our lot,” he asserts, “that can reflect on the distant past, imagine the future, and grasp the darkness that awaits.” But what of elephants and their capacity for grief, deep and documented? What is grief if not a savaging consciousness of the fact that death severs the arrow of time, that what once was — living, beloved — will never again be, while we are left islanded in the present, shipwrecked by an absence?
Still, unblunted by this marginal error of exclusivity is Greene’s astute insight into the elemental equivalence: we are doomed to decay, and so we cope by creating. He highlights two factors that jointly gave rise to the self-awareness seeding our terror and to our wondrous reach for transcendence: entropy and evolution. Across three hundred pages, he fans out the fabric of our present understanding, deftly untangling then interweaving the science of everything from black holes to quanta to DNA, tracing how matter made mind made imagination, probing the pull of eternity and storytelling and the sublime, and arriving at a final chapter lyrically titled “The Nobility of Being,” in which he contemplates how these processes and phenomena, described and discovered by minds honed by millennia of evolution, converge to illuminate our search for meaning:
Most of us deal quietly with the need to lift ourselves beyond the everyday. Most of us allow civilization to shield us from the realization that we are part of a world that, when we’re gone, will hum along, barely missing a beat. We focus our energy on what we can control. We build community. We participate. We care. We laugh. We cherish. We comfort. We grieve. We love. We celebrate. We consecrate. We regret. We thrill to achievement, sometimes our own, sometimes of those we respect or idolize.
Through it all, we grow accustomed to looking out to the world to find something to excite or soothe, to hold our attention or whisk us to someplace new. Yet the scientific journey we’ve taken suggests strongly that the universe does not exist to provide an arena for life and mind to flourish. Life and mind are simply a couple of things that happen to happen. Until they don’t. I used to imagine that by studying the universe, by peeling it apart figuratively and literally, we would answer enough of the how questions to catch a glimpse of the answers to the whys. But the more we learn, the more that stance seems to face in the wrong direction.
Echoing W.H. Auden’s stunning ode to our unrequited love for the universe, he adds:
Looking for the universe to hug us, its transient conscious squatters, is understandable, but that’s just not what the universe does.
Even so, to see our moment in context is to realize that our existence is astonishing. Rerun the Big Bang but slightly shift this particle’s position or that field’s value, and for virtually any fiddling the new cosmic unfolding will not include you or me or the human species or planet earth or anything else we value deeply.
We exist because our specific particulate arrangements won the battle against an astounding assortment of other arrangements all vying to be realized. By the grace of random chance, funneled through nature’s laws, we are here.
In the final pages, Greene both affirms and refutes Borges’s refutation of time, guiding us, perishable miracles that we are, to the wellspring of meaning in an impartial universe and ending the book with the word — a curious word, improbable for a physicist — on which Whitman perched his entire cosmogony:
Whereas most life, miraculous in its own right, is tethered to the immediate, we can step outside of time. We can think about the past, we can imagine the future. We can take in the universe, we can process it, we can explore it with mind and body, with reason and emotion. From our lonely corner of the cosmos we have used creativity and imagination to shape words and images and structures and sounds to express our longings and frustrations, our confusions and revelations, our failures and triumphs. We have used ingenuity and perseverance to touch the very limits of outer and inner space, determining fundamental laws that govern how stars shine and light travels, how time elapses and space expands — laws that allow us to peer back to the briefest moment after the universe began and then shift our gaze and contemplate its end.
As we hurtle toward a cold and barren cosmos, we must accept that there is no grand design. Particles are not endowed with purpose. There is no final answer hovering in the depths of space awaiting discovery. Instead, certain special collections of particles can think and feel and reflect, and within these subjective worlds they can create purpose. And so, in our quest to fathom the human condition, the only direction to look is inward. That is the noble direction to look. It is a direction that forgoes ready-made answers and turns to the highly personal journey of constructing our own meaning. It is a direction that leads to the very heart of creative expression and the source of our most resonant narratives. Science is a powerful, exquisite tool for grasping an external reality. But within that rubric, within that understanding, everything else is the human species contemplating itself, grasping what it needs to carry on, and telling a story that reverberates into the darkness, a story carved of sound and etched into silence, a story that, at its best, stirs the soul.
Until the End of Time, a splendid and invigorating read in its entirety, left me with the evolutionary miracle of Shelley on my mind — a fragment from the last poetic work he published before he met his own untimely finitude in the entropic spectacle of a sudden storm on the Italian gulf, long before humanity had fathomed entropy and evolution:
Talk no more
Of thee and me, the future and the past…
Earth and ocean,
Space, and the isles of life or light that gem
The sapphire floods of interstellar air,
This firmament pavilioned upon chaos…
Of suns and worlds, and men and beasts, and flowers
With all the violent and tempestuous workings
By which they have been, are, or cease to be,
Is but a vision: all that it inherits
Are motes of a sick eye, bubbles and dreams;
Thought is its cradle and its grave, nor less
The future and the past are idle shadows
Of thought’s eternal flight — they have no being.
Nought is but that it feels itself to be.
Published February 21, 2020