My first science project in the fourth grade was a presentation on black holes. I had just read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and although I didn’t understand about 97% of it, my imagination was lit ablaze by these mysterious objects that were so massive and so dense that they literally became invisible.
So when it was announced that scientists had finally managed to take a picture of a black hole for the very first time, I marked the big reveal on my calendar. I wanted to see it the moment they made the dramatic announcement. The picture (seen above) did not disappoint- a ring of fire burning infinitely in the depths of space.
That image has stayed with me. I’ll find myself daydreaming, and my mind wanders back to galaxy M87 and its supermassive black hole, consuming billions and billions of tons of matter every day. According to scientists, the black hole has a mass that is 6.5 billion times that of our sun. As I thought about all of that matter swirling around, a thought occurred to me: how could something that massive not be conscious?
Despite our constant celebration of our own uniqueness, humans are made up of the exact same materials as everything else in the universe. Atoms of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and other elements do their magical dance, and somehow the aggregate of enough little atoms forms what we call life and consciousness. Our humanity is the outgrowth of chemical processes that are found everywhere else in the universe, and the attributes of our species that we think are unique really aren’t- even trees are social beings. Our inability to conceptualize or understand the consciousness of non-human lifeforms doesn’t mean their consciousness doesn’t exist.
So if consciousness flows from the collection of atoms, how could something with 6.5 billion times the number of atoms our sun has (which itself has billions times more atoms than we have ourselves) not have some form of consciousness that we simply cannot perceive? After all, those atoms aren’t just neutral non-divisible pieces of matter. They have their own experiences too. I’m not suggesting that atoms are alive themselves, but they are the carriers of memories, information and experience. All the stuff that makes us feel: dopamine, serotonin, testosterone, estrogen; all of our memories; electrical impulses in our brains to laugh, cry or be angry; it’s all atoms scurrying about and bumping into each other. When we die, those atoms endure and make other things around us.
Does the atom that carried part of the signal to make us feel good when someone hugs us maintain that information? According to physicists, it must. When that atom becomes part of a tree later, and then part of a table, what does that mean for the table? What does it mean that all of the objects around us are the aggregate of thousands, millions or even billions of years of experience and information rearranged over and over and over?
Suppose my atoms don’t become a tree though. Instead they get ejected into space and make the 55 million light-year journey to M87, and down the chute I go into the maw of the black hole. Does that black hole now have that information? That tiny piece of a part of a hug that made me feel good?
There’s no way to know the answers to that question now, but it made me think about how interconnected everything is. I could be completely wrong about mass leading to consciousness, or inanimate objects (as we understand them) having some form of consciousness. But I will die someday, and while Jamil will cease to exist, the parts that made Jamil will be chopped up and reorganized into the next thing. The vastness of the universe exists in me, and someday I’ll return to it and become something new.
Staring into the black hole showed me that life may end, but existence is infinite. Consciousness and understanding probably take forms we can’t imagine. For these one hundred years or so, the atoms that make me will exist as a human being. Then maybe as a blade of grass, a cloud, a gamma ray or a neutron star. I find something spiritual in the interconnectedness of existence.
The next major scientific discovery that I’m waiting for is the discovery of life, as we understand and define it, somewhere else in the universe. I’m certain that discovery will happen in my lifetime, and I’m ready for my next spiritual experience on that day.