One night many years ago I was driving my son Kevin to a hockey tournament in Casper, Wyoming. It was winter and Denver had been hit by a snow storm. Although I had left Denver at a reasonable time, the traffic was very slow, so we didn’t arrive in Casper until very late. At about 1 in the morning, on a lonely road between Cheyenne and Casper, we stopped the car to get out and stretch our legs for just a few moments. It was very cold, certainly less than 10 degrees Fahrenheit. The sky was clear and moonless. There were no lights anywhere. We were miles from the nearest town, and there were no cars on the road at that hour. We looked around us, then looked up.
Persons who live in the city or the suburbs never really see the stars. In the city, you may see the planet Venus and some of the brightest stars, like Sirius. In more rural areas the constellations are outlined, and there is a faint glow from the Milky Way.
At 1 AM in the dead of winter in the middle of nowhere in Wyoming, the stars literally blazed in the sky against a pitch black background. There were more stars than I had ever seen before. Stars between stars, and fainter stars between them. Fuzzy blurs of nebulae. The Milky Way, the edge-on appearnce of our own galaxy, which always looked like a faint haze before, was ablaze. The colors of the stars were unmistakable, from incandescent white to electric blue to fiery red.
Standing there, facing infinity, I could not escape the plain evidence of my insignificance compared to the vastness of the Universe. The experience was overwhelming. It’s unfortunate that people rarely see the stars like that. Realizing our place in the Cosmos helps put into perspective how unimportant our petty problems really are.
I visited the Catacombs under Paris today. Underground Paris there is a vast network of mines that were used to obtain the gypsum and other material from which the city was built. The mines are ancient, dating from the 13th century, and, except for the Catacombs, are off limits to the public; in fact it is illegal to enter them. It is estimated that they extend for at least 280 km below the city, though no one knows their true extent. The Catacombs are located in one part of these mines. They stretch for 1.7 km. They are filled with bones. In the late 18th century, Paris’s cemeteries were in disrepair, with burial grounds collapsing. A decision was made to move all of Paris’s dead to the underground mines, creating the catacombs.
It is a bizarre and eerie place. The Catacombs are located deep below the level of Metro tunnels, just above the water table, in a geologic stratum known as the Lutecien, which dates back 40-48 million years, when Paris was covered by an ocean. Chamber after chamber are filled to the brim with bones. The bones are neatly stacked, femors alternating with skulls in grotesque patterns. The number of the dead is estimated to be between 6 and 7 million.
Looking at these anonymous bones, it is impossible not to have a feeling of smallness similar to that I had that cold starry night many years ago. Each bone belonged to a human being who was born, was a little baby, ran around with his or her friends as a child, grew up, had friends, enemies, neighbors and loved ones, and then died. Each one had a name, now forgotten. Each had hopes, dreams, ambitions, misery, pain, happiness — everything that makes us human. All the things that undoubtedly seemed so important to these people are forgotten and of no importance today. Maybe some were my ancestors (I do have some French antecedents). Maybe a particular femur or skull I saw belonged to someone who married someone which made it possible hundreds of years later for me to be born. It’s all very sobering.
Emerging from the Catacombs, the sun was bright, the sky was blue, and the hustle and bustle of Paris had not missed a beat. In one sense the Universe is unimaginably vast and we are very small, here for just a few heart beats and then gone. In another sense the Universe is just an electrical pattern in our brains, and these electrical patterns, that is, our minds and thoughts, are all that we really experience. When I die the Universe will cease to exist from my point of view, since unfortunately mine is the only point of view that I actually experience. Maybe our activities among our fellow human beings who happen to live at the same time as we do will not make any difference to anyone hundreds of years from now. Viewed from a cosmological context, nothing seems to matter. Viewed from the context of a person living in the here and now, our interactions with each other are weighty and important, at least to us. But seeing as we are all going to end up like the denizens of the Paris Catacombs one day, maybe we should try to be nicer to each other while at the same time not worry too much about our mistakes.