I heard this on NPR, January 31st, 2010 on “The Saturday Show On Sunday” with TJ Starr. It’s a recording made by Peter Mulvey called “Vlad The Astrophysicist”. I just thought about it recently, and decided I should “reprint” a former article I submitted to this newsletter almost 5 years ago. It stopped me dead in my tracks, and still does. All of our petty concerns, including whether or not we have “shifted”, or gotten that cherished PR, or achieved the ideal weight, or need a job or a better home or "fulfillment" – “pffftt” – its all ultimately of no lasting importance. (OMG – that sounds nihilistic.) You be the judge. Peter Mulvey narrated this while playing a beautiful guitar instrumental. The astrophysicist is a real person – Vladimir Chaloupka, a professor of physics at the University of Washington (Seattle). They both attended the National Youth Science Camp in West Virginia. If you don’t know of Peter Mulvey (I didn’t) this is his 12th album, and quite captivating. Here’s my transcript (Oh, and by the way, my “pffftt” is the best I can do to imitate Vlad’s sound he made with his mouth and tongue…):
(Background sound of being on a jet cruising at high altitude….) “4th of December, 2008 - Over the Eastern Seaboard.
Dear Adeline ~ Far below, the long evening light is fleeing the mountains of Nova Scotia. With any luck, I will sleep in the sky tonight and wake in Ireland. This summer, for reasons that are too complicated to go into here, I found myself sitting behind a motel in remote West Virginia with an astrophysicist from the Czech Republic, named Vlad. Vlad and I see each other every few years and we get along famously – probably because I love astrophysics and he loves music, and we love beer. In fact, we had found some beer at a gas station and we were drinking and talking as we sat in the metal chairs there by the river that goes behind the motel, looking up at a huge West Virginia sky full of stars. “Vlad,” I said, “I’ve always wanted to know the answer to this question, and you strike me as the only guy I’m ever going to meet who can give me an answer, so lay it on me pal, are there intelligent civilizations out there, other than us, and if there are, why haven’t they contacted us?” Vlad looked at me over his glasses, “That is two questions. First question is easy to answer – the answer is yes – many. Given the number of stars, the abundance of amino acids everywhere in the universe you look, very possibly many many civilizations have arisen. Now, the second question,‘why have they not contacted us’, that is the real question. And this is difficult to answer but here is my best guess. You must use your imagination.” And he held his hands out at shoulder width and he said, “Imagine the entire universe is only about this big, only the size of a beach ball. I mean, the universe is not spherical, but go with me on this, OK? Now, imagine that all of time (13 ½ billion years from the big bang until now) – imagine that that goes by in, say, 5 minutes. On that scale, consider us: we are an intelligent civilization, yes? We make radio waves, rocket ships, baseball, Great Wall of China, Bach sonatas – clearly an intelligent civilization. The question is – how long do we last? Hmm? Another 5,000 years, 50,000, another 5 million years? It does not matter. On the universal scale that I am asking you to consider, those all look the same, they look like this,” and he held his hand in front of him with thumb and forefinger pressed together and parted them for the barest instant. And as he did so he made a sound through his teeth – “phffftt” – he looked at me to see if I understood. Every human that has ever lived and will ever live, all the history we have made and ever will make – “phffftt” – he paused to let that sink in. It sank in. “So,” he said, “here is the universe.” And again he held his hands out defining the space. “And here are the intelligent civilizations as they arise in the universe.” And he moved his hand here – “phffftt” – then here – “phffftt” – then here – “phffftt”. You see,” he said, “they never meet each other. Time is too long. Space is too large. I mean sure, maybe at one time it happened right next to each other at the same time – ‘phffftt’ – 2 civilizations sprang up and they had war - better yet – they had peace – they had art exchanges - they had an intergalactic library – but they are all dead now too. In all likelihood we are alone, and by the time the next civilization arises, we will have been gone for a long time.” I looked back at the sky still so full of stars. I probably don’t need to tell you that, although they looked exactly the same as they had a couple of minutes ago, they looked completely different. I didn’t say anything for a minute. Then I said, “Vlad, would you like another beer?”
“Anyhow, Adeline, the word from your household is this week you began lifting your head up all by yourself, looking around at the faces that hover around your crib, occasionally favoring one of them with a smile. You keep up the good work. - Love, Uncle Peter.”
And with that….have a great 2015, but don’t get too hung up on the “small stuff” if you can!!!
- David Summerfield