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Between Nothing and Everything: A New Year

January takes its name from Janus, the Roman god of portals, of comings and goings, beginnings and endings—an odd-looking, two-faced deity who looks at once both where he’s been and where he is going.

And here in early January, we stand at just that vantage pointe—at least temporarily resolved to take a fresh look ahead into the uncharted new year, even as we look back at the way we’ve come for landmark lessons learned.

The Leonid Meteor Shower of November is an event as regular as cosmic clock work, a landmark lesson I count on every year to re-calibrate my own measure against the Grand Scale of Things.

Extraterrestrial grains of sand trace luminescent blue dashes across the black velvet sky with a fine-tipped brush. Time spent alone and silent under a canopy of constellations instructs in the cold-dark revelation of place and proportion in the world. But this year’s event was obscured by clouds, and I came inside disappointed.

Then, as if by accident, I found my landmark lesson. I traversed the expanse of the Cosmos by way of two four-minute videos that together, left me thrilled, pleasantly perplexed, and in awe of what we have been given thus far to know, from the micro-world of a human cell to the edge of space and time.

With hands still cold from my predawn cloud-watching, I first browsed to an Internet link of a new video journey by microscope, a revelation recently made public by scientists at Stanford University. The traveler moves ever deeper and at greater and greater magnification into an immensely complex constellation of nerve cells that only mammals possess. It is called the cerebral cortex.

The points of light in this cellular universe are synapses—the communication junctions between nerve cells. Every memory and emotion, every idea and every word ever uttered has come into being by the workings of the memory storage and information processing of synapses. These new studies reveal that there are more synapses and that they are more complex than we’d ever imagined.

Our brains contain 125 trillion of them—a number equal to the stars in the Milky Way galaxy, 1500 times over. A single human brain is “the most complex entity in the known universe” with “more switches than all the computers and routers and Internet connections on Earth” the study reports.

And then it came to me: I had been on a remarkably similar visual journey before, but through a telescope, with the lens peering out across light-years of space towards the most distant objects in the universe.

The Hubble Ultra Dark Field experiment in 2004 studied a view covering a tiny speck of sky equal to a grain of sand at arm’s length. What was recorded on the camera’s plates after ten nights focused on this narrow but  “ultra deep field” were over ten thousand galaxies, some so distant their light had been traveling for 13 billion years when it reached the Hubble camera. As I drank my second cup of coffee the morning of the obscured Leonids,  I watched the four-minute video to the very edge of the universe.

Even while our blue planet is less than a speck against all of time and space, we can wrap our heads around the cosmos. Each one of us is a colossus of living, thinking cells that can grasp some truth from the physical world from microscopic to telescopic—realities of the Grand Order that no generation before us has been granted to know. How is it possible we are not struck dumb every minute by the wonder of this place?

We’ve come far in humankind’s short history, and yet have only just begun to fathom the order and intricacies of the universe and how to live honorably and responsibly on our small, solid and hospitable part of it. Like Janus, we stand at the portal of this new cycle around our star, looking ahead and back, from our vantage point half way between the Everything and the Nothing.

In the understanding of our proportion to the cosmos mid-way between the neuron and the super-nova, let humility in our smallness make us careful, boldness in our ability to create make us courageous, wonder in our capacity to comprehend the cosmos bring deep reverence, and so make us more appreciative and cooperative inhabitants and stewards of this amazing place in the year to come.

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