The biggest challenge of my young life was finding my way to a meaningful existence. Like all children I wanted to enjoy myself and have fun, but something about this desire required companions, and from an early age I discovered true companions were hard to come by. My settings as a being have always been oriented towards introspection, and because I was gifted intellectually and also fairly athletic, and perhaps because of other factors, it was not easy to find friends whose own proclivities and sensibilities dovetailed with my own. At any time in my life, my close friends could typically be counted on one hand. And it’s true, of course: at times I was lonely.
In the third grade, after my family moved from Anniston, Alabama to Birmingham, at one point my mother put me on a train to travel back to Anniston to spend three or four days with a good friend I’d made there. My friend David and I did this all through elementary school and into high school—we got together for large chunks of time at one or the other’s house and did everything together, nonstop, for days on end. We invented our own D&D style dice games. We snuck onto the golf course across the street from his house and played frisbee in the morning dew. Sprinting full speed down an open fairway with your head focused on the sky, knowing you could run until your lungs burst without hitting a single obstacle, was an ecstatic experience. We’d go from playing frisbee to playing video games on floppy discs to writing computer programs to conducting mad experiments with those childhood chemistry sets you could get through the mail to playing basketball to whatever.
Those times were precious, but overall a life of meaning was difficult to sustain, and I insulated myself from a strange and uncertain world by focusing most of my attention on playing soccer. That became my identity. I trained nearly every day in my driveway, learned to pass and shoot accurately with either foot, traveled to tournaments, read snippets of all the leagues around the world, went to camps in the summer, watched older kids play, splattered the walls of my room with posters of European stars. I immersed myself in it and soon my handful of friends were those with whom I played soccer. My teachers saw potential in me, and used to encourage me to do different projects at school—they thought I was languishing or something by doing well but not applying myself—but I wasn’t interested at all. I could have given two hoots about DNA. Chemistry and biology were painful, but necessary parts of the curriculum.
And then I took physics in high school, and I loved it.
It was probably the first science class I took that wasn’t about memorization, first of all. It was about problem-solving. Physics was about the regularity of the universe. You typically start out with the study of dynamics: cannon ball flight, bouncing balls, balls traveling around curved tracks and spinning wheels. What you discover is that by following the energy content of a given projectile, you can predict with sublime accuracy what it will do next. You discover the universe behaves as if it is able to maintain an astoundingly complex energy accounting system, active simultaneously and instantaneously at all points and upon every physical interaction at every scale. Energy can transform from one type into another–a thrown ball can scuff the ground and slow down, but some of the energy associated with that lost velocity will become a spinning motion, and some will become heat–but the energy itself cannot be created or destroyed. This was incredible to me. I loved it.
I tried to think in writing this piece what the big deal about that was, and I think at its most essential and most visceral, it was the realization that the universe exhibits a particular type of causeless order. The rules that allow us to perform the energy accounting of moving objects are not reducible to other physical necessities, meaning, the universe is clearly the way that it is but there is no obvious reason it should be that way and not some other way. That is what I mean by suggesting its nature is causeless. It’s most essential qualities cannot be explained. So while our universe exhibits a particular type of order, I could certainly imagine others.
Consider a universe consisting of twenty bouncy balls in a box. Because the balls have consistent properties, they bounce reliably and consistently. That is the universe in which we live. We do not think it strange, for instance, that a bouncy ball doesn’t suddenly change its mass or its elasticity. All the bouncy balls in the universe you and I live in have the mass that they have, except for what off-gases into the atmosphere when the sun shines on them, or what smears onto the concrete when we throw them as hard as we can against the pavement. They don’t spontaneously get more or less dense while they’re sitting on the shelf. And the conservation of energy applies in our universe applies to each bouncy ball, individually and collectively, and instantaneously, all the time. Because bouncy balls don’t change their intrinsic properties, and because the energy accounting of the universe applies to all bouncy balls, wherever they go, we can predict exactly how they will behave. When two balls collide, there is one and only one outcome possible, and we can predict exactly what it will be if we know enough about the velocity, elasticity, spin, texture and weight of the balls before they collide.
Appropriate responses are awe, fascination, getting up from your chair and shouting “Eureka!”—“Hot Damn!” being a reasonable alternative—or shrugging your shoulders. Some people don’t find this all that remarkable really. I thought it was astounding. What if, in another world, the conservation of energy only applied to the set of bouncy balls, and not to each one individually? What if, for instance, bouncy balls randomly became heavier or lighter without changing their velocity when this change happened. That would mean they suddenly had more or less energy essentially. So, all of a sudden a bouncy ball traveling at 60 miles per hour (roughly 30 meters per second) goes from an inertial weight of 1 ounce to 1 pound. What if it did this randomly? That would be a little beguiling. What if at the instant this occurred all the other nineteen balls in the box went from weighing an ounce to weighing a fraction of an ounce, so that the energy accounting was always and instantaneously preserved for the set?
Such a universe would also exhibit a conservation of energy, only it would do so a little differently than ours. That’s just not how our universe works, but there’s no reason it couldn’t. So physics for me was a revelation: we could see the character of our universe. And our universe was remarkably, astoundingly consistent and reliable. That tickled my fancy pretty good.
You either grasp this moment of awe, or you don’t. Either existence itself is mind-blowing when you stop to think about it, or it is not. The notion that things all around us—obvious things, things we take for granted because they are the given properties of this world—are utterly incredible and incomprehensible even as they are perfectly ordered and consistent, is not a notion that fries everyone’s circuits. As I progressed through adolescence, it fried mine.
But physics had little to offer when it came to living a meaningful life. Physics, in fact, could not be used to derive meaning at all. At least for me. If I said, maybe this unique type of order is evidence of a loving God, and I tried to stitch together the givens of my childhood with the givens of my adolescence, I found I was trespassing in both directions. I was reading into things suppositions that simply weren’t there, that weren’t supported. And I could understand why.
Science, as much as I loved it, and dragged myself out of bed for a 7:30 AM Physics lecture for five days a week for each week of my freshman year of college–talk about a ridiculous freshman year–had nothing to offer when it came to feeling split down the middle, or overcoming my depression, or understanding how people of various beliefs could ever achieve a peaceful world. It had nothing to say about the psychology of empire-building, or racism, or the sexual objectifying of persons, or having an internship at a water heater factory that left me with the distinct feeling of being a rat in a cage, turning that little wheel. The things the world valued were hollow. The world felt magnificent at its core, but sick at every point. An indulgent wasteland. A trap that you couldn’t escape. A vortex of shortsightedness and selfishness in which a single person was futile.
I didn’t really belong to any of the worlds I was in. I was out of place, uncertain, and confused. I had little choice but to formulate and seek to answer a deeper set of questions.