Thoughts on the Universe

As I sit inside the local McDonald’s, watching the snowfall, I begin to think. As has become a custom of mine. I gaze down at my food. There’s something oddly satisfying within the cold biscuits and the sausages slick with (the frankly excessive amount of) grease. Almost cathartic, if that’s the right word. The satisfaction of an idea manifest, that is birthed before your eyes. Like looking at a painting and being filled by understanding…But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I quickly avert my gaze. But to no avail. The gears are already turning in my head. My mind is driving me somewhere, but to where? As has become a custom of the mind. It’s too late to stop, I suppose. Perhaps it’ll take me racing down deep, dark alleys, over picturesque mountain vistas, through muck of landfill, to fantastical lands of impossible geometries, creatures defying explanation, unspeakable horrors and delights, beautiful… Suddenly I’m jarred back to reality. The reality of greasy, lukewarm sandwiches and harsh, unforgiving fluorescent lights. Oh no. I’ve been staring at someone without realizing. Oh god, they’re looking! Turn your head, fast! Hate it when that happens. Need to check the time… and I’m late for class. Crap… but the hum of the engine grows louder in my ears again. The gears are still turning behind my eyes. A clock ticking away in the back of my mind. Who needs class, anyways? I have something far better to occupy my time today.

Perhaps it’s best for you to get to know this disembodied voice speaking from the writing on the screen before we continue. I’m a college student pursuing a degree in mathematical economics. And, if I had to guess, about 80% of you just made some indiscernible groaning noise or winced at the screen. This would be the point in a face-to-face conversation where you follow up with “oh, I never really was much of a math person”, “it was my worst subject in school”, “I guess somebody has to do it” and so on. Want to know a secret? I’m not a math person either. All through high school I hated math, bane of my existence, bearer of C’s. Routine calculations were boring! And so easy to make absent-minded errors. Most peoples perceptions of math come from those formative moments. When I finally arrived in college, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. Just another millennial trying to find his way. Who did I intend to become in the world? It felt like too great a question to handle. The burden of it weighed on me everyday. It ticked away at the back of my head, a white noise in my ears, an occasional flutter of anxiety in my stomach. A river pouring down on me, until I either drowned or the erosion finally carved me into what I was best suited to be… I’m waxing poetic, aren’t I? Having to limit myself to a single focus for my career at the expense of all others sounded like a poor plea bargain in a worse crime drama. How could I do that to myself? How could anyone? There stood before me a plethora of fascinating alternatives. And I tried a few of them. Two years and four majors later, the river poured harder than ever. I felt like I had been wasting my life. But throughout this journey, I continued taking math classes. And I began to see math differently. Tedious calculations and facile problems were unfortunate, yet necessary, to begin to grasp the big ideas behind all the math. I found that the big ideas were beautiful! I’ll admit, I had found beauty in other fields before. Most other fields. But I had never fully appreciated mathematics until then.

That probably sounds a little strange to a lot of you. Also absurdly nerdy. Calling ideas “beautiful,” revering concepts as if they had a physical presence, how very strange. Except that it isn’t. The Ancient Greeks had over 4 different words to describe various forms of love, each describing a different kind of love. Selfless love, sexual love, love of friends, etc. Love stands as a far broader idea than most initially realize. And we all love different entities for different reasons. We like the wo/man in the office, for example, because his/her green eyes and red hair stimulate your brain to create different chemicals, feelings, inside of you… Attraction by any other name. And who says romance is dead?…Or we love our pets unceasing loyalty. We appreciate a good joke. A great car. Parents. Children. A gorgeous view. Food. Music. I could go on for ages. Heck, some people even like things that wouldn’t seem objectively likable. Darth Vader? Second in command to a brutal tyrant, killer, force of evil in the universe? Uh, yeah. We still like him. Or people that are enraptured by horror movies. A culture fascinated by the macabre. By the dangerous. Or even characters that “we love to hate.” Donald Trump, for instance (speaking of greasy sausages). People like him because “he tells it like it is” or that “he’s a good businessman and will fix {insert problem here}.” When in reality he hitches his horse closer to the poll of “ignorant narcissist” than “strong willed and confident” ……But I digress. They have qualities that can be described as ‘beautiful’, if the person were so inclined to say. The quality doesn’t even have to be pleasant to make it beautiful! So is it really that strange to admire the efficiency of the world? Chemicals that bond together, decouple, being shaken by waves of energy, that all work together to create life! We live on a rotating ball in the middle of a vacuum, in a universe of UNBELIEVABLE size, all made possible by an elegant set of rules and held together by logical principles that make it all possible. The same universe where your great-great-grandparents were born, lived their lives, and died. The universe that birthed society, rock and roll, Niagara falls, Buddhism, the Rwandan genocide, Abercrombie and Fitch, classes for me to miss, ideas to write, people to read them, and these greasy biscuits I happen to be eating. We’re all living our lives in this vast, brutal, enchanting, disgusting, amazingly beautiful world. And the fact that we humans, products of this same system, can not only understand it, which is incredible in and of itself, but also model these processes, predict them, relate them to circumstances that are superficially dissimilar! That’s insane! What are the odds of that?!

In the words of Carl Sagan, “The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.”

I will never stop being enraptured by the majesty of it all. To me, understanding the universe makes it all the more amazing. We are privileged to live in it. Math is one piece of an enormous puzzle. And while I could happily study many different pieces of this puzzle, I judged mathematical economics to be the most feasible option for me. Not from some inner drive compelling me to crunch numbers forever. It was an almost shallow decision based on classes I had already taken, potential salary, job security, etc. But, most importantly, I know I can be happy here. Doing this. Being this in the eyes of the world. The same way I could have been happy doing something else. If there’s a moral to this story then it’s probably along the lines of what Mark Twain once said, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” The world isn’t as mundane as it first appears. It’s as fantastical as anything we could ever hope to dream.