James Jeans and John Updike: A Scientist’s Postulation and a Literary Figure’s Reply

In 1930, physicist, mathematician, and astronomer James Jeans, wrote, in his book The Mysterious Universe, this:

Standing on our microscopic fragment of a grain of sand, we attempt to discover the nature and purpose of the universe which surrounds our home in space and time. Our first impression is something akin to terror. We find the universe is terrifying because of its vast meaningless distances, terrifying because of its inconceivably long vistas of time which dwarf human history to the twinkling of an eye, terrifying because of our extreme loneliness, and because of the material insignificance of our home in space—a millionth part of a grain of sand out of all the sea-sand in the world. But above all else, we find the universe terrifying because it appears to be indifferent to life like our own; emotion, ambition and achievement, art and religion all seem equally foreign to its plan. Perhaps indeed we ought to say it appears to be actively hostile to life like our own. For the most part, empty space is so cold that all life in it would be frozen; most of the matter in space is so hot as to make life on it impossible. . . . Into such a universe we have stumbled, if not exactly by mistake, at least as the result of what may properly be described as an accident.

I hear in Jeans’s quote a scientist arriving at the almost Gnostic notion of flungness, and in the failure of nature to answer to human frames of reference, I hear Albert Camus’s notion of the absurd. Jeans’s quote also calls up for me something that John Updike wrote in 1985 that could almost constitute a direct reply:

The non-scientist’s relation to modern science is basically craven: we look to its discoveries and technology to save us from disease, to give us a faster ride and a softer life, and at the same time we shrink from what it has to tell us of our perilous and insignificant place in the cosmos. Not that threats to our safety and significance were absent from the pre-scientific world, or that arguments against a God-bestowed human grandeur were lacking before Darwin. But our century’s revelations of unthinkable largeness and unimaginable smallness, of abysmal stretches of geological time when we were nothing, of supernumerary galaxies and indeterminate subatomic behavior, of a kind of mad mathematical violence at the heart of matter have scorched us deeper than we know.

——-

James Jeans quote source: The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing (2009, edited by Richard Dawkins).

Updike quote source here.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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