Rees’ Pieces Up, Up, and Awry

Ben Rees , Columnist

When I heard that Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson was coming to speak, I expected him to adopt the traditional astrophysicist technique of making the audience feel exceedingly tiny in the midst of an unfathomably massive universe. He definitely brought on that feeling at first, but at some point Tyson began talking about how interconnected people are within the universe.

“When I look up at the night sky, and I know that, yes, we are part of this universe,” Tyson said. “We are in this universe. But, perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact … I feel big … There’s a level of connectivity.”

After he made a few points similar to that tall statement, I felt tough. Tough like nobody could mess with me. Tough like when you walk out of a Bond film and think you can kill someone by hurling a top hat. Nobody could touch me because the planets and I are made of the same stuff.

I felt like that for a solid 10 minutes. I may or may not have flexed a few times during that span—nobody has proof either way. Then he started talking about how the world wants to kill you, exactly in those words. His presentation, in plain black and white, put forth a terrifying concept that drained every ounce of testosterone in my body. He mentioned disease, earthquakes, tsunamis, co-conspiring earthquakes and tsunamis, and much more.

Then he took a turn for the worse. The essence of what he said was that black holes would split you atom from atom, starting by ripping your torso in two, then splitting your head from your neck, then your chest from your rib cage, until … I think I’ve made my point. I missed the rest of his talk because I dwelt on that topic alone. Think about it—we worry about taxes and whether or not Matthew McConaughey remains relevant. A black hole could emerge at any point and instantly draw and quarter us via gravity. These things didn’t make me feel good, especially as I left the talk and stared up into the now ominously dark night sky.

Never in my life have I suddenly felt so infantile in my helplessness. Imagine giving a child a five-pound chocolate bar and then watching their face as they bit in and discovered the almonds in it. That was my transformation. How can something be so magnificent on the surface but so utterly terrifying on the inside? I have no concept of how to reconcile the universe and I suppose that nobody ever will provide a truly adequate answer. How could something that rips people apart atom from atom be empirically explicable? I feel as if science can only go so far. Until it goes the extra mile, I’ll do exactly what most of the general public does: feign ignorance and pretend that Pluto is still a planet.

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