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A sermon by Pete Peterson for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, August 2, 2009

Rapt in Awe

I’m out under the stars most clear nights & all-nighters are common. The interior of the observatory is bathed in a dim red light. My cameras are cooled to at least 10 degrees below zero, and are one hundred thousand times more sensitive to light than the human eye. Photons that have traveled millions of years funnel through the telescope, building an image on the dimmed computer monitor. Through the dome’s open shutter the stars shine brightly to my dark adapted eyes.

The mind sometimes functions at many different levels simultaneously. I watch the guide camera make high-frequency tracking adjustments to take the “twinkle” out of the starlight. I make minor system adjustments via keyboard. And I enjoy background music while simply trying to absorb the immensity of the cosmos.

Einstein’s “awe” translates in my own simple terms to “awareness”. Cool. I can do that. I start from inside and work out.

Jonie Mitchel, in her song Woodstock, sings “we are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon. Stardust! That’s cool. Only Joni didn’t have it quite right. The average atom in your body has been processed through five generations of stars. It’s been said that “Not only do we live among the stars, the stars live within us.”

As I glance up through the shutter from time to time, I may see a meteor, or a satellite pass overhead. And if the Earth has revolved a bit too far, it’s necessary to rotate the dome and reframe my object. Thoughts flow….. The Greeks accurately calculated the circumference of the Earth 2300 years ago. They even calculated the distance and the size of the moon and Sun. So just what was that Columbus guy trying to prove?

The immensity of the distances I’m playing with are truly unfathomable. Greg Stone (a philosopher/astronomer friend of mine from Westport who has graced us with his attendance today) points out that if you’re familiar with Zen and meditation “awareness” is one of those concepts that runs very deep – and highlights the real difficulty in communicating what we experience.

Astronomers play number games. Symbol manipulation math and language is very useful. But Greg notes that in terms of true awareness it can be a smoke screen. When we say “chair” or 10 times 10 equals 100, we have an intuitive experiential understanding of what lies behind the symbols - because we have experienced chair, 10 and 100. But we have no intuitive gut-level grasp of a speed such as 186,200 miles a second or of the distance of a light year – 5.9 trillion miles.

I’ve heard it said that “the Solar System consists of the Sun, Jupiter – and other assorted debris.” Earth is certainly near and dear to humans, but to paraphrase Neil deGrasse Tyson we live on a cosmic spec of dust, orbiting a mediocre star in the far suburbs of a common sort of galaxy containing some 250-billion other stars. Our Milky Way galaxy is but one of an estimated 250-billion galaxies within our observable universe. These galaxies are not sprinkled randomly but are woven into intricate chains – right out to the edge. If there is an edge.

Telescopes are time machines. As I view the stars, I’m not simply looking at dots of light but at distant timescapes. The further away objects are the further back in time we are seeing them. The photons arriving from the Great Orion Nebula left there back when Vikings were actively raiding Ireland, and the photons from the Andromeda Galaxy were emitted 2½ million years ago. As we move out, close to the “edge” we discover the microwave background – an energy field generated very soon after initiation of the “Big Bang”. We can’t see past the microwave background. You can’t see past the beginning.

I read somewhere that years ago a scientist (possibly Bertrand Russell) gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy.

At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.“

The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "So what’s the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever," said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down!"

As I glance once again through the open shutter it occurs to me that I haven’t seen any turtles up there.

Kant got to ask the big questions, such as “why is there something instead of nothing.” Pete gets to speculate as to why he’s observed a crab, a swan, an eagle and a Horsehead and has yet to see those darned turtles. Life’s not fair. But that’s cool.

Gordon Reade of Stanford wrote a somewhat famous article wherein he described a debate between an atheist and a theologian who was a proponent of intelligent design.

The theologian’s argument ran along these lines: “Even a simple wristwatch is far to complex to assemble itself or to come into being by chance alone. The existence of a watch proves the existence of a watchmaker. You can’t have one without the other. By the same logic anyone with a any degree of intellectual honesty must admit that the universe, which is infinitely more complex than a watch, requires a Creator. You can’t have one without the other.”

The atheist responded “I could take you to a watchmaker who could demonstrate how he makes a watch as he explains each step of the process. But you can’t take me to God’s universe factory to show me a universe under construction. Therefore your reasoning is flawed. Your analogy does not hold.”

Through my open dome shutter I’ve watched stars being born, and I’ve watched stars die. Some of what I do is serious research and some of it is exploring strictly for my own pleasure. It’s a source of unending wonder and deep peace. I don’t really fret about enlightenment. This is the place that stills my noise and allows me to contemplate.

Physicists have identified 4 fundamental forces of nature. The strong interaction holds the nuclei of atoms together. The electromagnetic force causes electric and magnetic effects. The weak force causes radioactive decay and neutrino interactions. And gravitational force, which is the weakest of the four, but very long ranged.

My friend Greg hypothesizes that like gravity, we as individuals are very weak. But like gravity, in our collective wisdom spread over time, we may well be one of the most significant forces in the universe. For we are the universe becoming aware of itself. We are become the Conscious Universe.

Someone recently asked “Pete, what are you doing out there all night?” And that’s a good question. I’m not a creationist. But I think that what I’m doing, is looking for that universe factory.