It’s fair to say that the 2016 presidential elections left many of us feeling unmoored and unsure of the world in which we live. Many people on both sides of the political spectrum saw the election as “the end of the world as we know it,” but was it perhaps just a slight shift, a slight tilting of the axis of our world?
In the wake of the election, many people turned to familiar sources of comfort: ice cream, pizza, and alcohol. Others looked to Facebook, Twitter, and the news for endless analyses of the election and how so many people turned out to be so wrong about the expected results. Of course, many people looked to faith and God, attending churches, mosques, and synagogues, looking for community at a time when other communities seem to be falling. For some, comfort comes not in the form of food or social media, or even God, for some comfort comes by looking at the bigger picture, at science and the cosmos itself.
I’m sure that last month at Oak Park Temple, I wasn’t the only person in the audience of about 100 trying to find connection and comfort in a presentation about the beginnings of time. With discussions of entropy, the expanding and contracting universe, and the march of history the allusions seemed so close, but hard to grasp. At one point, Adam Lyon of Fermilab discussed the way the Milky Way can be viewed as points of light and I desperately tried to connect the analogy to George Bush’s famous request that the American people serve as “a thousand points of light.”
Some may find comfort in thinking about where and when this universe began. If you look at the issues from a global perspective, even two presidential terms are a time frame so small geologists can barely measure them. For physicists, entropy, the tendency of the world to gradually decline in to disorder and chaos is the second law of thermodynamics. In other words, whether Trump or Obama is president, chaos is inevitable. These ideas may not prove comforting to everyone, but it is hard to be handed a 508 million year old fossil from the Burgess Shale and not realize that our problems and ideas are fairly small and short-lived.
Physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is quoted as saying, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” In some ways, it doesn’t matter where the universe began or how much control we believe we have over it, time continues to march on, no matter how upset we are, or what we do. The same is not true of faith.
In one of the creation stories Ein Sof (literally, without end, or God) creates vessels, the vessels that break under the weight of creation. Our job is to pick up the broken pieces and repair the vessels, tikkun olam.
We all need comfort. As we end 2016 and start 2017, here’s hoping we find it, whether that’s in pizza, in understanding our scientific place in the universe, or in trying to fix the world.
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. This post is from Oak Park Temple’s three-part symposium, Eternity and the Eternal: Jewish and Scientific Understandings of Time. The program was designed by Rabbi Max Weiss and scientists, Professor Roy Plotnick, UIC, Dr. Sam Bader, Argonne National Labs, and Dr. Adam Lyon, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.)