While driving back from Philadelphia to northern NJ today, I listened to recent podcasts of two of my favorite radio shows: NPR’s Science Friday and Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. On both programs, astrophysicist Adam Riess, one of two Americans (the other being Saul Perlmutter) to win the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics, was the guest. The award was based on the 1998 discovery that the Universe is expanding at an accelerated rate, which might be accounted for by some unknown energy force called, for now, dark energy. Albert Einstein had hypothesized such a force and then called it his greatest blunder. He may have been right all along. What this means in layman’s terms is that the Universe will just continue expanding forever with little likelihood that it will ever contract to create another big bang.
Philosophically, the thought that the Universe will never contract is very disturbing to me. It seemed comforting to believe that our universe was preceded by an infinite number of cycles, with each universe cycle starting and ending with a big bang. And as I spoke tonight on the phone with my friend and colleague, Joe Eisenberg, I began to wonder why such a revelation about the Universe is so unsettling for me. One way some of us come to terms with our own mortality is an understanding the life cycle. At some point following our death, the molecules from our bodies return to the earth and become part of the soil from which plants grow. These plants are eaten by animals and ultimately humans. Eventually new human life is formed from some of these recycled molecules. To me, this seemingly endless cycle, provides some, but certainly not all, meaning to life. If the Universe doesn’t recycle, then does the Universe have meaning?
In my clinical psychology practice I often see unhappy patients. Some of these people have led tragic lives while experiencing few of the pleasures that make life worthwhile. They express the understandable belief that “Life’s a bitch and then you die.” To them, they haven’t had the kinds of experiences that give life meaning. Still others have expressed what some psychologists would call an existential depression. Because we are all going to die some day or because our planet may be absorbed by the sun some day, they don’t perceive meaning in living. It is this meaning that motivates many of us to be productive. Even some very intelligent children and adolescents I have seen hold the belief that there is no point doing any homework or studying to obtain good grades because life is going to end no matter what they do. Some even extrapolate this thought to the universe.
Perhaps, after learning about our universe’s likely outcome, I can now relate just a little bit to what some of my patients feel. Fortunately for me there is much more that provides me meaning in life than the outcome of our universe. Above all I have family and friends. My job is certainly rewarding. I have even helped some (though not all) suffering from existential depression find their way. I have had the good fortune to have had exciting cross-cultural experiences through my work and travel. Perhaps life’s a struggle at times and its a bitch that the Universe may die without recycling, but it doesn’t have to stop us from finding meaning in what we do have.