Late in the quiet of the gecko-roaming hours, a mosquito drones around a motivational poster that says, ‘You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.’ A picture of a basketball hoop. The mosquito doesn’t know what motivation is. It doesn’t know what basketball is, or what a game is. It doesn’t even know what an image is, or a poster, or a word. Furthermore, it is utterly incapable of ever grasping these concepts or ever coming close to understanding them. It is a very simple creature. It is a mosquito. It bites, it lays, it dies. That is all. It can perhaps see the poster just as well as I can but it can not imagine what meaning it possesses. It can not even wonder.
Outside the air is rich with poor-country foliage and exhaust fumes. The thin moon makes way for several reluctant stars that peer through the darkened haze. I peer back. Those are the stars closest to us, the Solar Neighbourhood. If you shrank the universe down to a scale where the sun had a diameter of 1cm (394 thou), the nearest stars would be a good day’s drive away.
The Solar Neighbourhood is in the Orion Arm of the Milky Way galaxy. Our galaxy is part of the local group of galaxies. Let’s pause here and reflect: scientists have speculated about the means to travel or send probes to nearby stars. A whole galaxy might perhaps be colonized over millennia. Sending any object to another galaxy, let alone sending a person, would require scarcely imagined technologies. Exceedingly advanced civilizations may have risen, flourished, and perished in those nearby galaxies without us ever knowing. So anyway, those galaxies make up the galaxy cluster, which is part of a supercluster. The visible universe is a patchwork of these superclusters of galaxies, of which there are a shitload. Whatever else there may be is invisible because it lies beyond the event horizon: the light from further away hasn’t gotten here yet. The universe just isn’t old enough. Hang around a few billion years and we’ll see a bit more, without even needing to get off the sofa. Though the world will have ended by then.
Scientists ponder the origins of the universe. It may have popped into existence as particles are wont to do in a vacuum, just because it is physically possible for them to do so. Just like why cats lick their arseholes – they can, so why not? This would suggest that our universe is only one among an infinite number that make up the multiverse. But why do these physical laws exist? Why are they not other than they are? Why is there anything at all? Is it possible to have nothing? Is the universe we perceive even real? How can we know for sure? Asking these questions is like searching for your car keys once you’ve already checked your pockets in every item of clothing. Hopeless.
You remember that mosquito? That’s us, just at a marginally higher level. We’re buzzing around the surface of the earth in our greedy, single-minded manner, and we can look out and see there’s a whole universe beyond our little world. We have found tools to study it and we have learned much. Just like a mosquito has learned how to steal blood and evade its enemies with cunning expertise. But when we get to the really big questions we come closer and closer to the mosquito’s motivational poster moment – the moment when, not only do we not understand what we’re looking at; it is so utterly alien and beyond the meagre intelligence our niggardly creator has gifted us that we are not even able to pose the kind of questions that would lead us to the truth. We hum and we bang against the universe blindly. Stupid. Meaningless. Only just smart enough to realize that whoever put us here didn’t give a flying fuck.
But there is a difference between higher humans and the mosquito. We wonder. She doesn’t. That gives some comfort. This minuscule sliver of the universe that we see, we should appreciate. Bits of it are really nice. Saturn’s rings, for example. And Lucy Liu. Don’t worry about that mosquito. She’ll never get to appreciate any of the bewildering things we get to think about. And she’ll be dead in a week anyway.
Further reading: The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality by Brian Greene