About the closest we here on Earth can come to touching the sky is atop the arching Karakoram-Kunlun mountain range in south-central Asia. It has the highest road in the world, on a plateau about 6,000 metres above sea level.
Hitching a ride northward from Kailas Mountain, the holiest site in western Tibet, over the ‘camel’s back’ to the Xinjiang Gobi Desert in Chinese Turkestan, is not so difficult. Almost any truck heading that way has to make the entire five-day journey, as there is virtually nothing in between.
For about three and a half days, spinning across the most desolate summits of the Himalayas, I was the sole passenger in a Chinese-style Mack truck. Finally I saw what I was looking for: a small river flowing from a mountain pass down to the road.
‘Stop here please,’ I communicated to the Xinjiang driver, in a fractured combination of spoken and sign language.
‘Ugh?’ came the reply.
‘Here,’ I repeated. ‘Stop the truck for me. Thanks.’ I climbed off with my tent, backpack, and a load of astronomy magazines I had bought in a second-hand bookstore in Islamabad, Pakistan, a few weeks before.
The truck drove off, its driver doubtlessly thinking I was a bit odd, to say the least. After all, if there were a contest to find the actual ‘middle of nowhere’, this place could take the prize. But what wonderful solitude and open space! At least it was safe, with days of vacuity in every direction.
I looked toward the trickling stream coming from a gap in the mountainside, put on my gear, and traipsed up the ridge. Eventually coming upon a splendid, lonely plateau, I set up camp. Stark, awesome mountain ridges loomed on all sides, like ushers pointing the traveller to the boundless reaches of outer space.
All day I sat perched on my plateau reading the astronomy magazines. And at night, I turned into the universe! I didn’t just observe it, I had to become it – vast, full, alive, and lonely.
I didn’t have a telescope, yet I wanted to experience the life of the sky. So I threw my mind into space, remembering the galaxies and novae I’d been reading about during the day. At 6,000 metres, immersed in the stark dark nights, it feels as if the universe comes to meet you, suffusing the Earth nightly with splashing waves of light. Whenever I ‘plunge’ into the awesomeness of space this way, I feel more alive. So many of the usual daily thoughts and personal preoccupations vanish in that vastness.
I have come to think that astronomy and astrophysics are the summits where all arts, sciences, and philosophies culminate. Antipathies seem to dissolve as our minds expand to encompass the orb of space.
At that single moment, we realize that we see countless light-years in every direction. We may even get a sense of being a living spark of the same fiery stuff we see in all the stars and galaxies. In special moments, the boundary between the ‘universe out there’ and ‘us in here’ seems to dissolve.
It used to be a cliché to talk about ‘cosmic consciousness’. Then came astronauts’ journeys to the Moon in the 1960s and early ’70s. Looking back on our white-swirled world of blue, they came to realize both the utter isolation of Earth and at the same time its distinct, even unique, role in a larger and much more complex universe.
Now, as astronomers push the edges of the known universe farther and farther outward to infinity, it seems to me that every young person should be able to graduate from high school enriched with a powerful personal awareness. Perhaps such an insight and education would give us a global respect for our integral place in the universe. It may help to foster healthier relations between humankind and nature. And as we understand how subtle life is, we understand how precious it is.
Some time ago I was a teacher of what might be termed peace education. In trying to give my students a sense of responsibility and proportion, I would start each workshop with a picture of the universe. I told them, ‘This is where we live.’ Next came the Milky Way, our neighbourhood in space. That was followed by the solar system – our ‘city block’ – and then the Earth, our home. I used to ask the students if all the members of our cosmic family got along well, shared, had enough to eat, and kept the house clean.
The universe isn’t something far away, at which we gaze; it’s home in the most profound sense – and we’re it. A French physicist, Jean Charon, recently postulated that electrons actually act as memory cells in the universe, recording ‘experience’ through the nature of their spin.
Have you ever thought of asking the particles of your hand where they all might have come from? Reflect for just a moment: That primary energy, from which the quarks congealed, out of which all subsequent matter was formed, is the same energy out of which we are all composed. ‘We are star-stuff,’ as astronomer Carl Sagan is fond of saying. In our bodies, all but the primary hydrogen source has been forged in stellar furnaces. More than star-stuff, we are ancient!
After a month and a half on my mountaintop plateau, the food was finished and the autumn nights left my water bottle full of ice in the morning. Reluctantly leaving my ‘altar’, I trekked back out to the roadside and caught another truck headed towards the Gobi. The large pickup wound down the serpentine maze of roads toward the dusty desert, dotted here and there with olive-green cypresses and Turkestan clay-brick houses. From my open-air perch in back I stared out at the highest summits on Earth, across which the universe nightly spills.
Reflecting on my experiences a few days later, I envisioned the creation of a museum dedicated to explaining the integrity and beauty of the universe and our harmonious place in it. I’m convinced that such a ‘life museum’ will someday come to pass. After all, just knowing that we are infused with the primary energy of the whole universe gives a wonderful sense of empowerment. Armed with that knowledge, I feel we can achieve whatever we wish in what is, ultimately, the lightning-quick moment of our lifetimes.